Former police officer files lawsuit against Town of Rocky Mount for retaliation, discrimination

Roanoke Valley News

ROCKY MOUNT, Va. (WFXR) — A former member of the Rocky Mount Police Department, Justin Smith, has filed a lawsuit against the Town of Rocky Mount. He is filing because of retaliation he endured after he voiced his opposition to the discriminatory behavior displayed by the chief of police against female employees.

According to documents filed with the Roanoke division of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Smith “filed a charge of discrimination on June 25, 2020 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Virginia Council on Human Rights; received a notice of right to sue dated August 16, 2021; and commenced this action within 90 days of receipt thereof.”

The lawsuit says that Smith began working for the Town of Rocky Mount as a police officer in early January 2017 under Police Chief Ken Criner.

During his time with the Rocky Mount Police Department, Smith says Criner made offensive and malicious comments about female employees — especially one of Criner’s administrative assistants, who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer in 2019 — and other women, creating a hostile work environment.

The lawsuit lays out a number of Criner’s inappropriate comments and actions that were included in the discrimination charges filed with the EEOC by two female administrative employees of the police department. You can read more about those interactions in the documents below:

According to the suit, Smith protested against Criner’s comments, making his opposition known to other officers and town officials, including members of the Rocky Mount Town Council and the town manager. Smith also helped the two administrative assistants file complaints with the town and charges of discrimination with the EEOC.

However, once Criner reportedly began to suspect that Smith was behind the complaints, he retaliated.

For example, on May 20, 2020, the lawsuit says Criner issued a memo saying that all overtime would be put on hold, but since Smith was an investigator at the time and needed to work as necessary to get the job done, this resulted in a loss of income to Smith.

Less than two weeks later, shortly after an article ran in a local newspaper about Criner’s conduct, the police chief demoted Smith, removed him as an investigator, and reassigned him to patrol.

In addition, according to court documents, Criner’s son posted a threat against Smith on social media, stating, “tell Justin [Smith] lies come back to haunt.”

Due to the harassment and retaliation, Smith resigned from the Rocky Mount Police Department on June 18, 2020. However, the lawsuit states that the retaliation did not end with Smith’s demotion.

For instance, Virginia State Police obtained search warrants in June 2021 using information from the Rocky Mount Police Department to look through Smith’s Facebook and Google accounts because someone named Joe Stanley posted several times on Facebook about his disdain for local government actions and the police department. Officials reportedly believed that Smith provided the information to Stanley that led to those posts.

Eventually, after more than a year of inappropriate conduct, Rocky Mount forced Criner to retire as chief of police on Sept. 2, 2021, according to the court documents.

Even after his resignation, though, the lawsuit says Criner continued to harass Smith, even riding his motorcycle past Smith’s mother’s house and making an obscene gesture while Smith was visiting on Oct. 2, 2021.

As a result of the town’s retaliation against Smith for “engaging in protected activity in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964” and the town’s discriminatory acts, Smith is demanding a jury trial for this lawsuit. In addition, Smith is asking for “injunctive and equitable relief, compensatory and punitive damages, together with pre-judgment interest and for costs and attorney’s fees to the extent recoverable by law, and for such other and further relief as may be just and equitable.”

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