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‘Unbelievably unethical’: retired Tulsa Police officer sues city for discrimination

Tracie Lewis in 2016
Tracie Lewis in 2016

A former major with the Tulsa Police Department has refiled a lawsuit against the city seeking at least $600,000 in damages for discrimination.

In the suit, now retired TPD officer Tracie Lewis, 60, is seeking compensation for lost wages and retirement pay in connection to a promotion she says she was unjustly denied. Lewis is also seeking damages for embarrassment, humiliation, and mental anguish.

In 2015, Lewis had been at TPD for about 25 years and was division commander for the Information Services Division (ISD) that handles police records. That year, a civilian ISD supervisor position Lewis was responsible for filling became available after a retirement. Lewis said she refused to change established educational requirements for the job in order to cater to an unqualified candidate preferred by TPD brass. For that, Lewis said she was demoted four ranks and denied a promotion in a process wildly divergent from the norm at TPD.

“You know, I went out of my career kind of on a down note when I was going up. I was going up. I was next on the deputy’s chief list. First female deputy chief, I would have been,” said Lewis in an interview with Public Radio Tulsa.

In court documents, Lewis said the preferred candidate, a civilian employee of TPD named Tina Gustafson, approached Lewis about lessening qualifications for the supervisor job, including eliminating a college degree stipulation. Lewis said she declined to alter the qualifications for Gustafson because she didn’t think it was fair.

“I wasn’t going to lose out on the deal. It was all the other people who had gone to school at night and worked so they could get the educational requirement,” said Lewis.

Gustafson applied for the job but before it was filled, according to Lewis' suit, Gustafson approached friend and colleague Maj. Rod Hummel and said Lewis punched another employee, a woman named LaDonna Scott. For that, Lewis said Chief Chuck Jordan demoted her four ranks, making her ineligible for the deputy chief promotion.

The suit also alleges that Deputy Chief Jonathan Brooks contacted the city of Tulsa’s Human Resources office so he could alter the description of the civilian supervisor position. Gustafson was promoted, and Lewis was transferred to patrol with the lesser rank of police officer.

“They put me back in the division that I was the division commander over. They tried to stick it in me because they thought I would quit,” said Lewis.

Lewis said though the experience of being back on patrol could be fun, it was also uncomfortable.

“Yeah, it was embarrassing. I was humiliated. There were times I would literally just go into my patrol car and puke,” said Lewis.

Lewis subsequently went to arbitration with the city over the demotion. In 2016, the independent arbitrator found that Lewis should be restored to her former rank of major and awarded back pay. Lewis said because of this restoration, some people have questions.

"A lot of people have said to me, 'why are you pursuing this? You were made whole.' I say, 'I can never be made whole.' You can't take away the humiliation," said Lewis.

Lewis also initially filed her discrimination lawsuit against the city in 2016. Five years later in 2021, the case was dismissed by Judge William Musseman because Lewis and her attorney failed to appear for a final hearing before the case went to trial.

In court documents, the reason given for Lewis’ absence is that Lewis’ attorney, Mitchell Garrett, didn’t calendar the date of the hearing correctly. Garrett said it was because he was at a doctor's appointment for his terminally ill wife who has since died.

Judge Musseman noted in his dismissal order that the case could be refiled without repeating discovery, the process that parties in a lawsuit go through to exchange evidence and information about witnesses.

After unsuccessfully appealing the dismissal, Lewis refiled the suit in Tulsa County District Court on Sept. 8.

Lewis said what she most wants is to tell the story of the “unbelievably unethical” behavior she saw at TPD, which is why she filed the lawsuit in the first place.

“I needed someone to hear me and hear my complaint. Literally all the pieces that are in place to either just hear the story or right a wrong, i.e. the chief of police, human services, the mayor. All the people that are in place to hear it didn’t want to hear it, and wouldn’t hear it,” said Lewis.

The city of Tulsa did not respond to inquiries for this article. TPD Capt. Richard Meulenberg said the department doesn’t comment on cases in litigation with the city.

When asked how she feels about seeking to be made whole with public money after the fact, Lewis said she would not be in this position if not for the actions of TPD.

“You know, unfortunately, if someone had righted the wrong to begin with, I wouldn’t be here. So, really, how do they feel about it? Because they could have fixed it way early on. So really in my opinion, it’s on them. I’m only here because no one would listen.”

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.