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Parks Department's Punishment of Minorities Like Stop-and-Frisk, Suit Says

By Katie Honan | December 24, 2014 7:24am
 Robert McClain said the agency denied him seven promotions and unfairly targets minority workers. 
Robert McClain said the agency denied him seven promotions and unfairly targets minority workers. 
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

JAMAICA — A Parks Department recreation manager says the agency passed him over for promotions more than half a dozen times and unfairly disciplines minority workers in a way that’s similar to “stop-and-frisk,” according to court documents.

Robert McClain, 56, said he's tossed his hat in the ring for promotions within the Parks Department, where he's worked since 1994, seven times, according to court papers.

Each time he was denied the position, and said his higher-ups even told him there wasn’t much chance for him to advance.

“The agency, it just wasn’t what I thought it was, not at all,” he told DNAinfo New York. “Not at all.”

McClain — who organizes park programming and handles administrative tasks — watched as younger colleagues were selected for positions he felt he was more qualified for, and then noticed most of the managerial positions were being filled by white employees. 

The suit, filed in November, alleges that a far higher percentage of African-American employees are disciplined at the Parks Department, mirroring the statistics of the NYPD's controversial “stop-and-frisk” practice.

Of the 191,000 NYPD stops in 2013, 160,000 were of black and Latino residents, according to court documents.

According to the claim, Parks Department managers have “targeted [McClain] and other employees because of their race as evidenced by a statistical disparity between disciplines comparing similarly situated employees who are not African-Americans with those who are African-American,” the suit said.

And discipline of African-American employees is also “swift and disproportionate” to that of non-African-Americans, according to the suit.

The lawsuit doesn't provide statistics for discipline at Parks, but McClain claimed he experienced discrimination that was motivated by his race and age. 

McClain said he was brought up on charges of soliciting money for a Parks Department Zumba program in 2013, but was cleared in a May 2014 hearing.

The damage from the accusations cost him three promotions, he said, and while a dozen people were notified by the Parks Department when the charges were filed, only two were told when they were dropped.

“The humiliation...it’s pretty bad,” he told DNAinfo.

The alleged hiring discrimination comes six years after a class-action lawsuit between the city and more than 3,000 workers was settled for $21 million. The suit claimed that whites were unfairly promoted and paid more.

McClain, who lives in St. Albans and works at Roy Wilkins Park in Jamaica, said it’s been “demoralizing” to be denied advancement in the agency.

And despite being involved in the 2008 suit — in which the Parks Department agreed to new oversight over promotions — he said the situation haven’t improved, he told DNAinfo.

McClain first took a test for recreation director in 2003, but was denied the position. He tried six more times for higher jobs within the Parks Department but was also denied.

He said he hasn’t been given any advice or training beyond a year-long managerial course that could help him move up.

“As a matter of fact I was told there was just no place else for me to go,” he told DNAinfo.

The Parks Department referred all requests for comment to the city’s Law Department.

A spokesman for the Law Department, Nick Paolucci, said “it’s inappropriate to comment on the specifics of this ongoing litigation, but I can tell you that the Law Department remains committed to ensuring that all people are treated fairly.”

McClain, who still works at Roy Wilkins Park, said he’s hoping to stay with the Parks Department but would like more opportunities to move up.

“I would like to advance, I do like what I do,” he said. “Dealing with people, the public, I’m a native New Yorker. It’s a noble thing. I think public service is a good thing.”