Since his promotion to captain in 2010, Charles Shafer has been at the center of a storm in the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office as his qualifications have come into legal question by two women who were bypassed for the job.
Donna Tompkins and Joan Wynn -- both lieutenants in the department -- filed suit in federal court claiming gender discrimination in the hiring process. They sued Sheriff John Darr and the city of Columbus in a two-year-old case that reached the courtroom this week.
Thursday, on the fourth day of a trial in front of U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land, Shafer took the witness stand.
Since the trial began, Shafer’s lack of formal education, gruff demeanor and experience during 35 years as a jailer have come out in testimony before the seven-man, five-woman jury.
Shafer was getting ready to take the witness stand after lunch when Land, outside the presence of the jury, looked at him and joked.
"They have been talking a lot about you these last few days," the judge said.
It appears the talk will stop today as attorneys are scheduled to make their closing arguments at 9 a.m. and the jury could get the case before lunch. Land indicated he would let the jury deliberate into the evening if necessary.
Tompkins and Wynn are asking for back pay of between $21,000 and $23,000, compensatory damages for emotional and mental stress and punitive damages.
Three Sheriff’s Office command staff members testified that Shafer was the clear choice for the job when the candidates were interviewed in April 2010. Maj. Mike Massey, Maj. Randy Robertson and jail Commander Dane Collins all said Shafer’s experience was a factor in their decision to recommend Shafer over Tompkins, Wynn and Lt. William Drury. Retired Capt. Leroy Mills, who Shafer replaced, testified that he recommended Shafer to Darr.
"My recommendation was Charles Shafer based on experience,” Massey told the court. “I looked at it as an assistant warden’s position. Shafer was capable of running the jail.”
Shafer was not shy about saying he was the best person for the job when asked by Columbus attorney Jim Clark, who is representing Darr and the city. When asked why, Shafer was quick to respond.
"Experience. I have nothing but jail experience,” he told the court. “Since 1984 I have been in a supervisory position.”
Prior to that, he worked for the Columbus Police Department in a jail position.
Collins described an employee who knew the ins and outs of the jail to the point he was the go-to person on emergency lock repairs and other issues, but could be gruff.
"If it was a popularity contest, Charles probably would not have won,” Collins said.
Collins was asked by defense attorney Jim Clark to assess the four candidates for the 2010 captain's slot.
"I thought Lt. Shafer and Lt. Tompkins did well in interview,” Collins said. “Lt. Wynn and Lt. Drury did not do quite as well.”
Collins was asked what was the difference between Tompkins, who had more formal education and less jail experience, and Shafer.
"Lt. Tompkins had only been in jail about 14 months,” Collins said. “If there was a knock against her, that was it.”
At one point in his testimony, Collins called Tompkins “awesome,” a word Tompkins’ attorney Edward Buckley went back to several times.
While Tompkins and Wynn both have master’s degrees in public police and undergraduate degrees in criminal justice, Shafer’s former education stopped with a diploma from Baker High School.
When then-Sheriff Ralph Johnson promoted Shafer to lieutenant from sergeant in 1999, Shafer signed an agreement to earn his associate degree in three years or face demotion. He never gained that two-year degree and was not demoted.
In an argument before Land, Buckley called it “a classic case of the male not meeting the baseline expectation” and the woman being brought in to report the man. After Shafer’s promotion, Wynn was moved into an administrative support role reporting to Shafer.
The captain’s job did not require a college degree, but the job description said a bachelor’s was expected.
Massey, Collins and Robertson testified they never saw or suspected Darr of gender discrimination.
Shafer was asked in a robust cross-examination by Buckley about the lack of women at the rank of captain and above. There is currently not one in the department.
"In my 30 years in Sheriff’s Office, there has been one woman above the rank of captain, and that was Teri Ezell,” Shafer said.
Ezell, a major, was the jail commander who was replaced by Darr when he took office in 2009. Ezell, who has been in the courtroom throughout the trial, was originally a party to the suit against Darr and the city. In June, Land dismissed claims from Tompkins and Ezell that Darr demoted them as political retaliation for supporting Johnson in the 2008 election that Darr won. Ezell dismissed her claim against Darr and the city that she was denied compensatory time.
A parade of Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office employees -- men and women -- testified for the defense early Thursday.
At least four women who hold rank in the sheriff’s office testified. All of them said they did not believe Darr discriminated against women in the promotion process.