A captain who heads the Buffalo Police SWAT team claims that he was passed over for a promotion earlier this year because of a false rumor that he is a racist.
And in a complaint filed with a state human rights agency, Capt. Mark R. Maraschiello accuses Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson of hurting his career by passing the rumor on to Mayor Byron W. Brown.
A 19-year police veteran who graduated with honors with a psychology degree from Princeton University, Maraschiello said he was passed over in April for a promotion to inspector, which would have meant a salary raise of more than $7,000.
Maraschiello claims that, during an April 3 meeting in the mayor's office, Gipson told Brown that he heard that Maraschiello made some racist remarks while complaining about the city's promotional process.
Maraschiello insists he has never made racial remarks, and both black and white officers who work with him say he is not racist.
In a document filed with his complaint, Maraschiello identified one of Gipson's top aides -- Deputy Commissioner Daniel Derenda -- as the person who told him of Gipson's alleged discussion with the mayor.
"Derenda related that, when the subject of inspector promotions was brought up, Commissioner Gipson told the mayor he did not want to promote me because I make racial statements around the department and [Gipson] clearly suggested that I am a racist," Maraschiello said in the document.
He said Derenda -- a longtime friend who worked for years with him on the Special Weapons and Tactics team -- called him about seven hours after the meeting to tell him what had happened.
Derenda "asked me if I was sitting down" before relating the events of the meeting, Maraschiello said.
He said Derenda told him that Gipson's remarks had touched off a "screaming match," with Derenda and two other police officials defending Maraschiello.
Gipson, Brown and Derenda all declined to comment on Maraschiello's allegations, saying they will not talk publicly about a personnel matter that is the subject of litigation.
Police spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge denied, however, that Gipson advised the mayor that Maraschiello should not be promoted because he made racist remarks.
A high-ranking Police Department source said Gipson does not consider Maraschiello to be a racist and denies telling the mayor that he is a racist. The source said both Gipson and Derenda feel that Maraschiello has misconstrued their words.
DeGeorge said the captain who ultimately did get the promotion to inspector -- Patrick Reichmuth -- is a white male, as is Maraschiello. Gipson and Brown are African-Americans. Derenda is white.
Maraschiello, 44, was ranked first on a promotional list for inspector, but he said Gipson decided to terminate that list.
He said he believes Gipson falsely told the mayor he is a racist in order to prevent the mayor from promoting him. Maraschiello said he barely knows Gipson.
"I'm not saying I should be treated any better or any worse than any other officer in this department," Maraschiello told The Buffalo News. "I feel that I've been branded with the accusation of being a racist, and that is something that could hurt me for the rest of my career."
Maraschiello confirmed that, at times, he has been a vocal critic of the city's methods of giving police promotions, which he feels are intended to give preference to minorities. But he said he has never discriminated against any minority officer or citizen, nor made racist remarks about any minority group.
Two veteran African-American officers assigned to the SWAT team contacted The News to defend Maraschiello.
"When I heard he didn't get the promotion, I couldn't believe it," said Officer Earl Perrin. "[Maraschiello] is an outstanding, meticulous commander. He's all about getting the job done. Race has nothing to do with how he does his job. Obviously, somebody has some kind of political agenda."
"Mark has worked in the inner city his whole career. He is a straightforward man who treats everybody equally," said Officer Vernon Beaty. "He's not a racist."
Maraschiello filed a racial discrimination complaint with the state Division of Human Rights on Sept. 29. He has also filed a grievance with the city, through the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, saying he was unfairly passed over for promotion.
Robert P. Meegan Jr., president of the police union, confirmed that Maraschiello was ranked first on a promotional list for inspector until the city decided to scrap that list and offer a new Civil Service test to create a new promotional list.
Maraschiello said he was frustrated and upset about the earlier list being scrapped, so he refused to take the new test. He said he felt the new test was "very subjective" -- 75 percent oral and 25 percent written.
Police officials said Reichmuth finished first among those who took the new test, and he was appointed as an inspector -- with a base pay of nearly $91,000 -- in June.
Reichmuth had been ranked second, just behind Maraschiello, on the earlier list.
The Buffalo Police Department, which was found guilty of racial discrimination in hiring in a major federal lawsuit, has in recent years made efforts to improve promotional opportunities for minorities.
One of the department's seven inspectors -- the highest Civil Service rank for a city police officer -- is a minority. Out of 16 captains, one is a minority.
But according to the high-ranking police source who spoke in defense of Gipson, Maraschiello was not passed over to make room for a minority.
"The department didn't even have a minority eligible to take that inspector's job," the source said. "The job went to a white officer . . . Reichmuth."
Meegan said he has no idea what statements Gipson made in the April 3 meeting with the mayor, but he said emphatically that no officer -- black or white -- has ever suggested to him that Maraschiello is a racist.
Maraschiello holds down two important jobs in the department, Meegan said. In addition to the dangerous part-time job of commanding the SWAT team, he also oversees the Narcotics Squad on most night shifts.
"[Maraschiello] was indeed passed over for promotion to inspector. We've never been told the reason why," Meegan said. "If an unfounded allegation of racism is the reason, that is totally inappropriate."
Meegan said the situation illustrates why the PBA strongly opposes a statewide program called "zone scoring," which is used in police promotions.
Under the zone scoring system, a police department can pick one of the three top scoring candidates on a Civil Service test when it makes a promotion.
Supporters of zone scoring say it gives a police chief more flexibility in choosing the best person for a job, rather than depending entirely on a test.
Lindy Korn, an attorney for Maraschiello, declined to discuss details of his case but described him as "an extraordinary person" who graduated from Princeton and decided to make law enforcement his life's work.
Maraschiello has headed the SWAT team for 10 years and worked with the narcotics unit for two years. He said he has risked his life "hundreds of times" and suffered several on-duty injuries, including one when he was hit by a stolen car.
He has been on sick leave since July 22. He said he had back surgery to relieve pain from one of his police injuries.
"I go out on drug raids with the detectives, and when some crazed or suicidal person is holed up in a house somewhere, I go with the SWAT team," Maraschiello said. "I'm not saying I deserve special treatment, because I love the work I do.
"I just want to be treated fairly. Right now, I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach."