She Called Racism on Fellow Cops—and Made a Ton of Enemies
Melissa McFadden is the rare cop who wants to defund the police. She is also a lightning rod in a department facing scrutiny for killings of Black people.
A bold truth-teller in a broken, racist institution? Or a toxic internal pest, an instigator of hostility betraying her own colleagues?
While accusing her own department of failing to investigate discrimination complaints, a disparate use of force against the Black community, and failing to protect officers who report misconduct, McFadden has sustained a barrage of internal-affairs investigations and complaints from her coworkers.
Since 2017, complaints by department members have accused McFadden of creating a “hostile” environment, and grooming young Black cops to instill an “us versus them” mentality against white colleagues. In other words, radicalizing them.
Others go so far as to criticize her—rare among cops—support for defunding the police, even alleging she was affiliated with a now-defunct Black Lives Matter Facebook page one cop labeled a “hate group.” Many have also criticized the recent memoir she wrote about racism she said she’s witnessed during her 25-year career.
This month, at least 10 white and Black officers in the department, along with one former officer, have taken steps toward filing a federal discrimination lawsuit against McFadden, as a local ABC affiliate reported. It’s a number of complainants their attorney, Zachary Gottesman, told The Daily Beast will likely increase because of the “safety” in numbers.
“Before, they were afraid of being isolated as complaining parties,” Gottesman told The Daily Beast. “Now, they’re not so concerned anymore.”
But McFadden says the cadre of officers, many of whom have made unsuccessful internal complaints against her in the past, are mounting a last-ditch effort to tear her down in retaliation for outspokenness about what she says is a corrupt culture.
“They’re upset because I exposed them,” she told The Daily Beast, adding, “I’m a whistleblower.”
The ongoing saga hangs like a cloud over a police department attempting reforms after the fatal shooting of a number of Black residents in recent months. Among other major changes, the agency recently hired its first Black female police chief.
The Columbus Division of Police declined to comment about the saga surrounding McFadden, with a spokesperson describing it as “an ongoing legal and personnel matter.”
While some officers have labeled McFadden “militant” in her views, others who spoke to The Daily Beast said she was under fire for being one of the few voices who holds officers accountable when they go rogue.
“There’s a lot of things that they get away with,” a second Black female officer, who like many others interviewed for this story requested anonymity for fear of professional retaliation, told The Daily Beast of the department. “And there’s nobody else to say anything about it. It just goes on unspoken.”
Of the at least 23 internal affairs complaints McFadden has faced in her 25-year-career with the Columbus Division of Police, 13 have come since 2017 alone—all of which were reported by current or former colleagues, according to a Daily Beast review of her record.
Three complaints were also made by citizens unaffiliated with the department. Two were for “rude or discourteous language or actions,” and one was for using mace on a citizen. Only one of the allegations, of rude language or actions, was sustained, in 2004.
In her 2020 memoir, Walking the Thin Black Line, McFadden wrote that from the time she graduated from the police academy in 1997, she decided to resist a “rampant cover-up culture.” Early in the book, she shares an anecdote about calling out a white officer in the department for making illegal searches during traffic stops while she was still a rookie. She wrote that the incident “forever tagged [her] as the poster child for going against the status quo.”
Although McFadden said she faced retaliation for speaking out against misconduct, criticizing training and decrying policies in the past, she claimed the animosity toward her didn’t reach a boiling point until she became one of the highest-ranked Black officers on the force.
According to a federal lawsuit she filed against the Columbus Division of Police in 2018, McFadden was told by a Black female colleague in October 2016 about that cop’s white supervisor assigning tasks to her unfairly. The Black officer made a complaint, and in response, her supervisor made two allegations of misconduct against her, the lawsuit claims. McFadden later helped the Black officer, who is unnamed in the suit, draft and file a second complaint alleging racial discrimination.
It is then, McFadden told The Daily Beast, that a white commander, Jennifer Knight, who headed up internal affairs at the time, turned on her for boosting her coworker’s claim. “She retaliated against me then. She’s still retaliating against me,” McFadden said.
Knight—who is among the 11 cops who moved to file the new discrimination complaint against McFadden this month—declined to comment in detail because of the lieutenant’s ongoing lawsuit. Instead, she told The Daily Beast, the “truth is detailed in the original investigation” into McFadden in 2017, “through the interview statements of her many victims, and through publicly filed court documents.”
Knight is referring to an investigation that McFadden said was brought against her after Knight was removed from her internal affairs position in January 2017, and former commander Rhonda Grizzell was reassigned to oversee McFadden’s patrol unit. McFadden alleges in her suit that Knight and Grizzell conspired to “run” her out of her patrol team, at least in part because McFadden had helped her Black colleague in need.
Grizzell did not respond to a request for comment.
Within weeks of taking her new position, Grizzell, who is white, allegedly solicited complaints about McFadden’s leadership of the patrol unit from Black and white officers in an effort to “undermine her,” according to McFadden’s lawsuit.
According to an internal affairs report obtained by The Daily Beast, an investigation into McFadden began in March 2017. That’s when a Black sergeant told Grizzell that during a 2016 performance review, McFadden said she could have given him a lower score, but didn’t “believe in black on black crime.”
According to the report, the Black sergeant said the comment made him feel he was being treated better because of his race, although he believed he should have received even higher ratings.
Grizzell told the sergeant the allegation was serious, asking him, “if she had to document his allegation, could she use his name,” and he agreed, according to the report. Grizzell later denied coercing the sergeant or other officers who came forward to submit complaints about McFadden, as she has since claimed.
After the sergeant’s allegation was sent to internal affairs, McFadden was stripped of her role in the patrol division and reassigned to the property room, where, she said, she had to perform “humiliating” work tending to bulletproof vests and uniforms. Meanwhile, the investigation that began with one officer’s concerns ballooned to include over two dozen cops going on the record to say McFadden had created a “hostile” work environment while leading her patrol unit.
Among the allegations included in internal affairs reports: that McFadden told a Black officer shortly after the ambush killing of five Dallas Police officers in July 2016 that “if it takes a few officers having to die in order for this country to realize that we have an issue with white officers killing black men, then so be it.”
The officer said he was disgusted by the comment, and also claimed McFadden harbored a “Black militancy mindset” and recruited Black officers to her patrol, fostering an “us versus them mentality” between Black and white cops. It’s a claim echoed by some Black officers who gave statements criticizing McFadden, according to the internal affairs report related to the March 2017 investigation.
White officers who provided statements also claimed McFadden looked down on proactive policing because she believed it would result in discrimination against Black citizens. Others said they were afraid of using force while she led the patrol team, for fear she might find their use of force excessive because of their race.
One officer accused McFadden of bringing up his past use of force against female Black suspects and telling him he had a “racial” issue.
In response, McFadden denied making inflammatory comments she was accused of, according to the internal affairs report. She also denied being biased against white officers or having a “militant” mindset, but did say she was against police brutality, and that the department needed to build more trust in Black communities.
Nonetheless, the internal investigation concluded the “broad swath” of allegations were proof McFadden had made “divisive, racial statements,” mainly to Black officers about white cops or against the police department. It also concluded she has an “anti-law enforcement mentality.”
Kimberley Jacobs, the white chief of police at the time, concluded in May 2018 that the allegations against McFadden were sustained and recommended termination. But the final decision fell to the Black Public Safety Director Ned Pettus, who ruled against termination.
Neither Jacobs nor Pettus responded to requests for comment for this story.
The ruling was a major vindication for McFadden, but also fed ire among officers who said it sent a message she was being unfairly protected by city leadership.
“This is the kind of crap we’ve had to deal with,” said Trent Taylor, a white, former sergeant with the police department who made his own internal affairs complaint against McFadden and is one of the officers leading the latest discrimination charge. “Why does she continue to get a pass? I don’t know. I think she knows people. Maybe because she sues everybody and they’re afraid to deal with her. But all they’ve done is emboldened her.”
Taylor speculated McFadden and her husband have a personal relationship with Pettus, which led to the decision going her way. But Glenn McEntyre, assistant director of public safety in Columbus, told The Daily Beast Pettus made his decision “based on the facts and evidence before him.” He also said Pettus has “no personal relationship” with McFadden or her family.
After surviving the attempted firing, McFadden went on to write and publish her book last year, shortly after protests against police violence exploded and further divided the city and department.
It opens discussing the reckoning of the summer after the murder of George Floyd, with McFadden indicating that because she’d recently secured her pension, she felt “bulletproof” to speak publicly against the systemic racism that she and other Black officers had experienced, as well as the over-policing of Black neighborhoods.
But days after the book was published, she was subject to a new torrent of internal complaints.
The first came from Taylor, the former sergeant, who filed a citizen complaint against McFadden for allegedly making false and disparaging statements about him in the book, according to an internal affairs report. He also accused McFadden of not getting department approval to write the book or write about the department. The latter charges were sustained, but the charge about the disparaging comments was deemed unfounded.
Although Taylor summarized McFadden’s book as “page after page after page of poor me, poor me, poor me and, oh, you’re all racist” he memorized the page he appears on.
In the passage, McFadden references Taylor’s comment on a police Facebook group in 2016 discussing an upcoming Black Lives Matter rally. Taylor commented, “Anybody know where I can get some C-4???” according to screenshots viewed by The Daily Beast. The comment was reported by a Black dispatcher in the department, but an internal affairs investigation at the time cleared Taylor of wrongdoing.
McFadden wrote that Taylor went on to retire in July 2020 due to Black Lives Matter protests in the city. “This calls into question this officer’s entire career and how deep-rooted his hatred of Black people is,” she wrote.
Taylor denied being a racist and told The Daily Beast his Facebook comment came after the Dallas Police officers were killed in 2016, and that it was a joke lost in a group chat simultaneously discussing an upcoming protest that year as well as the police response to the Dallas shooting. He said the C-4 comment was related to the “ingenuity” of the police who killed the suspect in Dallas with a robot wired with explosives.
Although Taylor told internal affairs investigators looking into his September 2020 complaint against McFadden that he didn’t retire last year because of Black Lives Matter protests, he told The Daily Beast that last summer’s unrest, and the damage some caused, was the “last straw” for him. “I watched them burn our city down for four weeks with little or no police response,” he said.
Taylor also criticized McFadden’s appearance last October at a Black Lives Matter rally in front of police headquarters, in which he said she protested her own department and chanted “defund the police,” but received no punishment.
“She wasn’t relieved of duty, she wasn’t investigated, they just let her do what she wants,” he said. “And that’s the reason we’re filing a federal lawsuit.”
McFadden told The Daily Beast the rally was organized in support of her after Taylor’s complaint. She said she does believe in defunding the police, and re-allocating money from the budget toward social-services agencies and mental-health causes to address calls police should not be responding to.
“We’re inundated with too many things,” she said.
The rally was later the subject of yet another internal complaint against McFadden filed by Mark Gardner, a white commander of the internal affairs bureau. According to documents obtained by The Daily Beast, Gardner filed a complaint in January against McFadden for being affiliated with a Black Lives Matter group he argued should be defined a “hate group.”
The aggrieved cop alleged the group had made posts about killing cops and said pictures of McFadden posing at a rally in 2019 and at the October 2020 event were proof she was part of a “hate group.” He cited a new law that year which prohibited police employees from “associating with or affiliating with hate groups.”
His complaint was tossed by the office of public safety, according to records, because Gardner did not provide evidence to suggest McFadden was part of a Black Lives Matter group and also because the group in question was not defined as a hate group by the city.
In an emailed statement to The Daily Beast, Gardner denied filing the complaint on behalf of himself, indicating “information” was brought to his attention by a lower-ranking officer and he was “required” to “report the alleged violation.”
McFadden told The Daily Beast she is not a member of any Black Lives Matter organizations.
“But I do believe that Black lives matter, in general,” she said, arguing Gardner’s “excuse” about the complaint doesn’t change the fact that he decided to submit it.
“Even if he was told that by a lower-ranking person, the fact that he would even insinuate or write down that Black Lives Matter is a hate group speaks volumes to where his mindset is and the underlying issues that I feel he has with race.”
She said the complaint is serious, considering Gardner was involved in investigating complaints against police by Black Lives Matter protesters last summer.
Gardner, however, told The Daily Beast that his position as the internal affairs commander required him to report the allegation. He also referenced his “reasoning” of why a Black Lives Matter chapter might be equated to a hate group, pointing to specific screenshots of posts in the complaint, including one in May that said “KILL ALL WHITE COPS.”
The Facebook page Gardner referenced has since been removed, and attempts to reach people connected to it were unsuccessful.
Gardner also dismissed McFadden’s claim about his “underlying” issues with race. “Her personal attacks and race baiting don’t deserve a response,” he said.
In July 2020, the police department was sued by protesters claiming officers responded to protests with “excessive use of force,” including pepper spray, tear gas, assaults, and rubber bullets. Although they admitted that there were “sporadic” incidents of property destruction and harassment of police, protesters alleged the police “needlessly escalated and provoked protesters.” In June, three officers in the department were charged criminally for pepper-spraying protesters without provocation and falsifying reports.
The protest response, and more recently, the shooting of two Black men and a teenage girl in the city, have only further stoked internal turmoil.
Andre Hill, a 47-year-old Black man, and Casey Goodson, a 23-year-old Black man, were both shot and killed by area cops in December 2020. Hill was unarmed when he was killed by a white Columbus Division of Police officer, Adam Coy, who allegedly did not enable a body camera before the shooting and afterward failed to immediately render aid. The officer was fired and charged with murder. He awaits trial.
Goodson’s shooting came at the hands of a Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy who encountered Goodson and claimed he brandished a gun and didn’t follow commands to drop it. Goodson’s family said he was carrying a sandwich. Although the Columbus Division of Police was not involved with the shooting, they conducted an investigation into it.
In January, Mayor Andrew Ginther asked then-Chief Thomas Quinlan to step down amidst scrutiny over the deaths.
But in April, yet another shooting rocked the city when 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant was shot and killed by Columbus police at almost exactly the same time Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis. Body-camera footage later showed Bryant apparently lunging with a knife toward another young woman moments before she was shot. But days after the shooting, Mayor Ginther wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice to request a review of police operations for possible racial bias.
In June, Elaine Bryant, a Black woman unrelated to the teen, was hired as the new chief of police from outside the department. She is the first ever Black female chief, and the first external candidate to serve as chief—something officers who spoke to The Daily Beast said gave them hope for change.
Ginther called Bryant a “strong proponent for inclusion and reform.” In a statement after her hiring was announced, she added that it was a “pivotal moment” to step into the role and that she was committed to rebuilding “trust between officers and the community.”
Officers who spoke to The Daily Beast anonymously said they believed the potential discrimination claim against McFadden this month may influence the new chief’s view of her as Bryant settles into the department. Bryant did not respond to a request for comment.
“These officers that don’t like her are just trying to throw dirt on her name,” said one Black male officer currently on the force, referring to McFadden. “It’s obvious.”
McFadden, who has applied for an open assistant chief role, agreed. “I believe that this is an attack on me to not get that job,” she said.
Nonetheless, she said, she continues to go into work each day—and to be a thorn in the side of a department that can’t stop making headlines for the worst reasons.
“I feel like I’m in combat,” she said. “I feel that it’s sometimes difficult to go to work. But what makes me get up and do it every day is because I know I’m in the right. And as long as I continue to fight for what’s right, I can break down this system.”