Charges of racism erupted this week at the Tisbury police department, with the town's only African-American year-round officer saying he has been the subject of harassment, jokes and even an offensive caricature displayed in the station.

The allegations of Theophilus M. (T.M.) Silvia III, filed over a period of 12 months with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, were made public this week by the Vineyard chapter of the NAACP, where officials were dissatisfied with the town's response to the issue.

Mr. Silvia's complaint, which makes broad accusations against the town of Tisbury, the police department and chief John J. McCarthy, is highlighted by two disturbing pieces of evidence: a letter that parodies stereotypical African-American speech patterns, and a poster depicting a hunched over man labeled as "Sgt. Silvia of the special needs police."

Three paragraphs of type are shown next to the image on the poster.

"Sgt. Theophilus Miguel Gomez Silvia of the special needs shown here shucking and jiving for the camera," states the caption. "T.'s M. says...Remeber, when yous approach a unidentified subject known to you as yous best friend, makes sure yous check ID's and get some VITs."

Mr. Silvia's attorney, Theophilus R. Nix Jr., said these revelations reveal unacceptable attitudes and behavior in the department.

"It's an affront to every police officer on this Island who is doing a good job, to bring this kind of poison to the Island," he said. "Anyone of good will who sees this has got to come to the same conclusion. It's like putting a swastika in the town hall."

Others agreed.

Carrie Tankard, vice president of the Vineyard NAACP, said that these episodes are evidence of an ongoing culture of harassment toward Mr. Silvia.

"This situation has been going on for three years," she said. "That's a terrible situation for someone in the workplace to be dealing with. We've been trying to have a dialogue with the Tisbury police and the selectmen, and no one would deal with us. I'm sorry it had to come this far."
Selectmen declined to comment on these incidents beyond a one-page letter issued to all town employees Monday. The statement rejects the notion that racism is widespread.

"Chief John McCarthy has conducted an internal investigation into these matters," states the letter, which was signed by chairman Tristan R. Israel and forwarded to Island newspapers. "Appropriate disciplinary action concerning certain of these actions has been dispensed, and the board of selectmen has upheld that action.

"While these unfortunate incidents reflect upon the town as a whole, we are satisfied that they represent the actions of a tiny minority, and that the vast majority of town employees exhibit behavior of the highest professional standards."

The statement does not offer detail about discipline, but according to internal police department documents obtained by the Gazette, officer John Dillon has been disciplined for ridiculing stereotypical African-American speech in a computer letter at the police department. Mr. Dillon is due back at work before the end of the month. He declined to comment for this article.

Mr. McCarthy would not discuss personnel issues linked to Mr. Dillon or specifics of the MCAD complaint.
But he said racist behavior is not tolerated in his department.

"In general terms, that type of behavior is absolutely despicable by anyone, but particularly by a police officer," he said. "The NAACP is absolutely right on the money. The person responsible for that poster has a substantial problem."

This week's revelations mark the first widespread public discussion about Mr. Silvia's complaint, which was first filed with the MCAD in April 1996.

The complaint charges that Mr. Silvia -- a longtime special officer whose hiring as a permanent patrolman was the subject of great controversy three years ago -- has been the victim of prolonged harassment. This harassment was implemented by Mr. McCarthy and others in the department, to make his work conditions unbearable, the complaint states. Initially, incidents of harassment detailed in the complaint included unfair scheduling, such as having to work two 24-hour shifts back to back and, being constantly delegated to the midnight shift despite his seniority over others. The original complaint also states Mr. Silvia was denied the opportunity for training and endured harassment from other officers.

While Mr. Nix said these incidents reflected discriminatory practices, a town attorney disagreed. In an 11-page response, lawyer Michael Gilman stated that Mr. Silvia's complaint twists facts and exaggerates his seniority. The response also notes that Mr. Silvia has been unable to gain certification as an EMT and has received warnings for failure to follow proper department procedures.

"Indeed, rather than discriminate against Silvia, the town and the department have afforded Silvia extraordinary accommodation despite his continued failure to satisfy the elements of his position," according to the statement.

More recently, other information was added to the complaint, Mr. Nix said, including the speech parody letter and the poster, although both reflect incidents that took place months ago.

For instance, the letter incident began in August 1995. It began after Mr. Silvia wrote a memo to Mr. McCarthy, a memo which was left stored in the police department's computer system. But at some point, another person, presumably Mr. Dillon, entered the file and changed the language.

For instance, a line of the letter originally was, "I was notified by my wife." It was changed to, "I's was notified by my wife." Another line was changed from acceptable English to "I's had been resting ons my couch fors a while."

As for the poster, Mr. Nix said he objects both to its language and the graphic image. The image of a hunched, defeated man was used in the Old South, he said, when African-American men were "made out as apes."

"We were not considered men," he said. "We were hunched over. We had a small brain. We were more from the ape family."
Questioned further about the broader issue of allegations of unfairness toward Mr. Silvia, Mr. McCarthy noted that police department employees are protected by a strong union. The issue is not one that should be debated in the press, he added.

"These issues are being responded to" within the MCAD, he said. "That, at this point, is the proper forum for addressing those issues. I feel confident that in the end there will be vindication of the administration of the department and the police department in general."

The chief added that privacy issues prevent him from disclosing details of how Mr. Dillon has been disciplined.
But for advocates of Mr. Silvia, this response is not satisfactory.

They say that Mr. Dillon's action against Mr. Silvia -- including the letter incident and other incidents, such as a documented name-calling episode -- should have been dealt with more severely and sooner. It is an example of how Mr. Silvia is treated unfairly in Tisbury.

"I don't think any of us wants this kind of person on any police force in this community...He was just suspended a week ago," Mrs. Tankard said. "That seems like too late."

Reporter Jason Gay contributed to this article.