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Capitol Police discriminated against Black K-9 trainer, congressional labor office finds

Former sergeant was removed from his role and replaced with a white officer who had less training, expertise and experience

A Capitol Police K-9 rests in Statuary Hall before a memorial service for the late Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings in 2019.
A Capitol Police K-9 rests in Statuary Hall before a memorial service for the late Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings in 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Capitol Police discriminated and retaliated against the first Black training leader at the agency’s K-9 unit shortly after he filed complaints about “racially tinged” emails that white officers had written, a labor hearing officer found.

Juan Cobbin, a former sergeant at the department, filed an employment discrimination claim with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights in 2021, when the Capitol Police removed him from his position and transferred him to a non-K-9 position at the Library of Congress.

The hearing officer sided with Cobbin after a five-day hearing, a decision first made public last month when an OCWR Board of Directors review upheld that conclusion and found it was backed up with “substantial evidence.”

The hearing officer found that Cobbin had far superior qualifications as a K-9 training supervisor than his white replacement; that the K-9 unit needed Cobbin’s skills as a training supervisor; that the official who recommended the transfer had knowledge of Cobbin’s complaint about the emails; and that the Capitol Police’s reasons for the transfer were pretextual, the OCWR board’s decision states.

When someone proves their claim, they can be eligible for up to $300,000 in emotional pain and suffering damages, an uncapped amount in economic damages and a reimbursement of attorney fees.

Cobbin was awarded an undisclosed amount of compensatory damages and other concessions from the Capitol Police, including lost hazardous duty pay, the board decision states.

“Unfortunately, the decision about who trains the USCP K-9 teams to protect the Hill was based on discrimination and retaliation, not on who was the best qualified person to do the job,” said Les Alderman, an attorney for Cobbin. “And it exemplifies the deep-seated culture of discrimination in the department at all levels.”

Tim Barber, a spokesperson for the Capitol Police, said the agency “disagrees with the decision” of the OCWR board but didn’t say whether it plans to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Complaints that concern the Congressional Accountability Act can be decided by a hearing officer after an administrative hearing. The OCWR board can set aside that decision if the directors find it to be arbitrary, outside of required procedures or unsupported by substantial evidence.

The OCWR board decision, made public Sept. 27, said the hearing officer’s findings “are firmly supported by substantial evidence of Cobbin’s superior qualifications, the other flaws in the USCP’s explanation for its actions, and the temporal proximity between his protected activities and the USCP’s decision to transfer him out of the K-9 division.”

Cobbin, who started at the Capitol Police in 2001, became a K-9 handler in 2009 and led K-9 training intermittently for an eight-year stretch from 2013 to 2021, according to the board decision.

Cobbin alleged he was transferred out of K-9 because he complained to supervisors and the internal affairs section, known as the Office of Professional Responsibility, about “racially tinged” emails written by white colleagues in the unit, the board decision states.

Cobbin contended that some of the emails said he shouldn’t be heard on issues like the deployment of dogs during Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. He said the emails were sent on the Capitol Police server and unfairly criticized Black supervisors and referred to Cobbin as a “joke,” according to the board review.

The hearing officer found Capitol Police witnesses “provided shifting justifications as to the reasons for reassigning Cobbin, as well as inconsistent testimony regarding management meetings and discussions concerning possible replacements for Cobbin to head K-9 training.”

The Capitol Police contend that Cobbin’s discrimination and reprisal claims were unproven because the official who recommended the transfer denied knowledge of Cobbin’s complaints about the emails and attributed his decision to a concern about morale, the board wrote. The board said it rejected that position since Cobbin demonstrated that the agency was aware of the complaints and that the adverse action took place shortly after the complaints.

The hearing officer also found that the morale problem referenced by the Capitol Police was attributable to the racially tinged emails and Cobbin’s pending complaint about those emails, as opposed to events that were remote in time and not tied to Cobbin, the board wrote.

Separately, Cobbin, who is now retired, also sued the department in November 2021 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Court records show that lawsuit, which described a history of racial discrimination in the K-9 unit, was settled on Sept. 22.

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