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Retired Police Helicopter Pilot Sues LBPD Over Alleged Racism

According to the lawsuit, he endured harassment for decades.

Collage of text from Michael Colbert's lawsuit against the LBPD and a photograph of Michael Colbert in front of a police helicopter
Graphic by Kevin Flores

In collaboration with FORTHE

A lawsuit filed against the City of Long Beach by a retired Black police helicopter pilot alleges that he was subjected to workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, including the use of racial slurs and a litany of racist and demeaning acts by his co-workers throughout his 30 years on the force.

According to the lawsuit, plaintiff Michael Colbert was the only Black person to ever hold a pilot position in the 53-year history of the Long Beach Police Department Air Support Division. Throughout his career with the police department, the lawsuit alleges that Colbert was frequently ridiculed and “made to feel that he was lucky to have the position.” 

Colbert’s complaint also alleges that he and other Black employees at the LBPD were frequently denied promotions into management positions, subjected to unjust punishment, micromanaged, publicly humiliated, and given job assignments that were undesirable.

Colbert retired from the LBPD in 2019 and filed the lawsuit in LA County Superior Court last October. In addition to the City of Long Beach, former and current LBPD officers Michael Erdelji, Joel Cook, and William Jarman are named as defendants. 

About 6% of all sworn officers in the LBPD are Black, according to department figures. In contrast, Black people account for about 12% of Long Beach’s population. In 2015, Police Chief Robert Luna, who retired at the end of last year, said his department struggled to recruit Black officers.

Last year, the Beachcomber reported that it had received “multiple emails and telephone calls from LBPD police officers complaining of the dearth of African American officers, supervisors, middle managers and command officers in their ranks.” According to the report, when retired LBPD Detective Mark McGuire looked into the issue, he found that the department had not promoted a Black woman in its entire 113-year existence and that there were only five current Black women working as sworn officers. 

“Defendant LBPD has a long-standing, wide-spread, and deep-rooted policy and practice of disparate treatment of its employees based on race,” the lawsuit alleges, adding that these practices continue to the present day.

The LBPD referred a request for comment to the city attorney’s office, which declined to comment. Colbert, through his attorney, Richard Jorgenson, declined an interview request.

Last summer, a separate race discrimination lawsuit was filed against Long Beach by a group of former and current Black city employees. The class action lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs were denied equal promotions and pay, in addition to receiving inadequate protections against harassment and being subjected to unnecessary discipline.

One of the plaintiffs told the LA Times that there was an “anti-Black culture” among Long Beach city employees.

The allegations in that lawsuit mirror many of the ones found in Colbert’s complaint. 

Jorgenson said his client kept detailed records of each alleged incident cited in the 44-page complaint, going all the way back to 1990, when Colbert was a rookie cop. The allegations in the lawsuit span the tenures of nine different police chiefs, including Luna, who helmed the department between 2014 and 2021 and is currently running for LA County sheriff.

One of Luna’s main platform planks is improving deputy wellness. “I have seen first-hand that the personal needs of law enforcement officers and employees go ignored too often, which leads to negative consequences,” reads the Luna for Sheriff website

An email asking what Luna did during his tenure as LBPD chief to recruit and promote more Black officers, as well as prevent race-based discrimination and harassment in the workplace, was not returned by the Luna for Sheriff campaign.

According to the lawsuit, Colbert tried to report his grievances up the chain of command but his complaints were either brushed aside or, in some cases, prompted retaliation.

“These acts of harassment/retaliation were not only perpetuated by peer-level officers, but by Department Administration and Management. There was simply no level of authority where Plaintiff could find support or protection at the LBPD. The Human Resource Department failed to properly investigate and to protect officers from harm. This inaction allowed for the LBPD to further ostracize Plaintiff and subjected him to punitive mistreatment,” the lawsuit states.

During his early years with the police department, Colbert alleges that he often heard white officers throw around racial slurs to refer to members of the public who were Black.

In one instance in the 1990s, the lawsuit claims that Colbert’s field training officer, Frank McCoy, called Central Long Beach “N*****Ville” while the two were driving through the area on their way to Signal Hill.

“McCoy paused, then told plaintiff the term ‘n****r’ is only associated with ‘the people we (officers) deal with while patrolling in certain neighborhoods,’” the lawsuit states.

McCoy went on to become chief of police in Oceanside before retiring in 2020.

In another instance — in May 1992, during the Rodney King uprisings — the lawsuit claims that two detectives assigned to work with Colbert questioned out loud why his girlfriend, a white Cal State Long Beach sorority member, would date a Black man.

“The detective in the back seat stated, ‘Why would she date a black guy, is she blind or are her parents blind?’ Both detectives were in the back of the patrol car and laughed aloud for several seconds,” the lawsuit says. The same detectives continued to make similar comments during future encounters. According to the lawsuit, “The detectives repeatedly asked Plaintiff if he was still dating the same girl, and, if so, had she or her parents regained their eyesight?”

Between 1992 and 1995, Colbert worked patrol duty and alleges that white Long Beach officers would regularly use the acronym “DND” to describe the distraught relatives of Black victims “at exceptionally brutal and traumatic crime scenes.”

After hearing the acronym several times, Colbert asked another officer what it meant.

“The officer explained to Plaintiff that African American relatives often cried hysterically or had extreme physical reactions to the death of their relative. Hence, as the relative[s] were franticaly mourning their deceased relative, the police officer would make fun of the grieving relative[s] by referring to their reaction as the ‘Dead N****r Dance,” according to the legal complaint.

During his flight training, which took place between 2001 and 2003, the lawsuit alleges that Colbert was repeatedly humiliated and ridiculed for minor mistakes.

The lawsuit goes on to allege that early on in his career, the plaintiff became ensnared in a nearly year-long internal affairs investigation, where he was wrongly accused of an unspecified “criminal matter.” Throughout the probe, investigators told Colbert that his personal activities were being monitored and that his phone had been wiretapped. He was also told by investigators that the US Drug Enforcement Agency had taken out a search warrant for his cars and police computer, states the lawsuit.

Eventually, Colbert learned that the investigation centered around what had been purported to be an improper query of a license plate via his police computer. But after about a year, he was informed that the investigation had been a mistake and received an apology from McCoy, who at that time was a commander.

The lawsuit states that the stress from the bunk investigation, along with the threat of being axed hanging over him for months, caused Colbert to lose 40 pounds and grow to deeply distrust the City of Long Beach.

“Plaintiff was so affected that he pondered leaving the LBPD and seeking employment elsewhere. However, given that Plaintiff had recently obtained the position of Police-Pilot, Plaintiff’s dream job, Plaintiff ultimately elected to stay with LBPD and not pursue employment with another agency,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that, during the early aughts, Colbert was the only member of the helicopter unit to be subjected to random drug tests, a stipulation in the police union’s memorandum of understanding with the department for certain units. 

“Although possible, the chances are extraordinarily slim that the same individual in a seven-member team would be randomly selected each time to provide a sample,” the lawsuit states.

Around 2005, the lawsuit claims that at a bachelor party for fellow helicopter pilot Officer Robert Nevel, Colbert passed out on a couch. The next day, Nevel showed Colbert photos he had taken of “an unknown person or persons placing their exposed penis in different positions on or about Plaintiff.”

When Colbert asked Nevel to erase the pictures “Nevel walked away and laughed at Plaintiff’s request,” states the complaint.

Between 2011 and 2014, Sgt. Marcus Hodge, a Black man, was assigned to oversee the helicopter team. The lawsuit alleges that there was a distinct difference in how Hodges was treated compared to other supervisors.

According to the complaint, Nevel would swivel his chair around so that his back was facing Hodge when he spoke. Nevel also placed a toy monkey holding clapping cymbals on the corner of his desk. “The monkey toy is a character resembling ‘Charlie the Chimp.’ This character is often displayed for its nexus to the 1935 publishing of ‘Little Black Sambo and the Monkey People.’ Officer Nevel was not only disrespectful to Sgt. Hodge but demeaning to the Plaintiff and the entire African American population as a whole,” the lawsuit states.

In March 2016, Colbert became the acting sergeant in charge of the air support detail after the position opened up unexpectedly. Upon assuming the role, the lawsuit alleges that Colbert faced various acts of humiliation, insubordination, and persecution.

In one instance, according to the lawsuit, Colbert received profanity-laced text messages from one of the helicopter pilots, Officer Jarman, falsely accusing him of mishandling a training program for reserve pilots. A few days later, in November 2017, Colbert was demoted by Cook, then the acting field support commander, who was a close friend of Jarman. Both Jarman and Cook remain employed with the LBPD, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Although his pay grade was reduced, Colbert claims he was still expected to fulfill the responsibilities of sergeant until his retirement. “The position had remained vacant from the time Plaintiff had been removed from the position until Plaintiff’s retirement two years later. Once Plaintiff retired and the LBPD no longer had the luxury of utilizing his services and experience in the position without adequately compensating Plaintiff, they immediately moved to fill his position,” the lawsuit states.

In 2018, Chief Pilot Mike Erdelji — who has since retired — began distinguishing himself in introductions with Colbert by calling the plaintiff “Black Mike,” according to the lawsuit. Also that year, Colbert alleges that he found a beer growler on his desk that had an etching of a rooster on it and large lettering that read “Black Cock” and that Erdelji laughed when Colbert found it on his desk. In another interaction, while watching television coverage of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, where the gunman targeted Latinos, Erdelji turned to Colbert and said, “At least it was only Mexicans,” while giggling, the suit alleges. Erdelji also had an image of a blackface cartoon character posted in his cubicle, according to the complaint.

In the spring of 2019, the racist harassment began to ramp up, according to the lawsuit. The complaint alleges that Colbert found the headrest of a chair at the pilots’ computer that he frequently used covered in bubble wrap. 

“It was obvious to Plaintiff that this object was placed there to keep Plaintiff’s hair from touching the chair, as greasy hair and greasy hair products are stereotypes to negatively portray the African American community,” the lawsuit states.

At around the same time, the lawsuit alleges that Colbert found a photo with his face superimposed onto the body of an African American boxer with his hand in the air and screaming the word “victory” placed throughout the pilot office after telling a local publication that he considers it a victory each time his helicopter touches down on the ground.

Colbert contends that there were several other racist photos put up around the workplace that were meant to refer to him. These photos remained posted for six months and were removed 10 days after Colbert retired in October 2019, according to the lawsuit.

Colbert is seeking damages in excess of $25,000, including lost wages. But more than restitution, Colbert’s attorney says his client hopes the lawsuit forces the LBPD to change. The lawsuit is also calling for the court to order the department to implement training and oversight to prevent future race discrimination and harassment.

“Everyday he had to weigh his dignity and self-respect against the job he really loved,” said Jorgenson. “I don’t think [the lawsuit] has anything to do with money. He just wants it to be better for other Black officers.”