Dave Hosford/Flickr

Three retired New York City police detectives filed a class action lawsuit against the department and two high-ranking police officials Monday, claiming systemic racial discrimination blocked them from rightful promotions in an elite intelligence unit.

Former detectives Jon McCollum, Roland Stephens and the estate of Theodore Coleman allege in their complaint in Coleman v. The City of New York, 17-cv-07265, that despite more than two decades of service each and sterling records, all three were passed over for promotions in favor of white colleagues.

They, like other black detectives in the intelligence division, faced a “secretive and unstructured promotions policy, administered by white supervisors who refuse to promote deserving African-Americans detectives,” according to the complaint.

Beyond targeting the department and the city, the suit, filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady and the New York Civil Liberties Union, also includes the former head of the intelligence division and current Deputy Commissioner David Cohen, and Assistant Chief Thomas Galati, the division’s current head.

“Minority communities have for decades distrusted the NYPD, and for good reason,” Emery Celli partner and lead counsel Elizabeth Saylor said in a statement. “Pervasive discrimination against black detectives only deepens that distrust. The NYPD’s discriminatory culture needs to change.”

Plaintiffs note in the complaint that all three joined the intelligence division in 2001, helping in the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the years that followed, they received recommendations for advancement from supervisors. In a statement, plaintiff McCollum said “multiple supervisors” told him that had he been white, he would have been promoted.

“I watched countless white detectives from my class move up in rank, but not me,” McCollum said.

Similarly, plaintiff Stephens said in a separate statement that he “hit a brick wall” in his career, eventually coming to the “painful realization that my skin color mattered more than my skills and achievements.”

In 2011, plaintiffs filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming then that the department violated their civil rights. In it, they noted that, at the time, blacks made up 18 percent of the NYPD force and 16 percent of all detectives. However, in the intelligence division, blacks made up 6 percent of all personnel and 7 percent of the division’s detectives.

Likewise, the EEOC complaint claimed “the vast majority” of black detectives in the division were of the lowest third-grade status, which is compensated between $20,000 and $30,000 a years less than the higher second- and first-grade detective positions.

“The disproportionately small number of African-American detectives in the higher paying and more prestigious first- and second-grades is a direct result of the secret and standardless promotions policy that gives high-level NYPD personnel in the intelligence division unchecked discretion to handpick white candidates for promotion while repeatedly overlooking more qualified African-American detectives,” the plaintiffs claim in their new complaint.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department declined to comment, directing questions to the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public information. In a statement, NYPD spokesman Peter Donald said the department had been aware of these allegations in the suit “for some time,” given the EEOC filing in 2011.

“Following the EEOC’s investigation, the NYPD presented information on promotions and diversity within the Intelligence Bureau to the Department of Justice. After review of this, DOJ declined to pursue the case,” Donald said.

He added that a recent decade-long review that included the timeframe in the allegation found that black third-grade detectives within the intelligence unit were promoted at a faster pace than their colleagues.

Plaintiffs filed suit under both federal, state and city law claiming employment discrimination based on race. Plaintiffs seek class status, and retroactive promotions to second- and first-grade detectives, along with back pay, benefits and other damages.