A jury Monday awarded more than $12 million to a group of former Los Angeles police recruits who were forced out of the LAPD after suffering injuries in the department's training academy.
The verdict comes as the department struggles to attract sufficient numbers of recruits into its ranks and many young officers have quit over a salary dispute.
"It's justice," said Justin Desmond, one of the five plaintiffs in the case. "All I ever wanted to do was go back to my job and be a Los Angeles police officer. But they never would let me do it."
The case hinged on a move LAPD officials made in September 2009 to deal with a few recruits who had been recuperating for several months from injuries they received in the academy, said Matthew McNicholas, the attorney representing the group.
The recruits were told they would have to resign unless they started training again immediately, McNicholas said. Any of the recruits who refused were fired.
Desmond, who injured his back and groin in a fall during a run up a steep hill, was among those who refused to resign. "I hadn't done anything wrong," he said.
With no income or health insurance, he said, he was forced to sell his car and other possessions to pay for medical care.
After he recovered, Desmond said, he applied to rejoin the LAPD but was repeatedly denied.
Typically, when an injury forces a recruit to drop out of the department's rigorous, six-month training program, he or she is assigned to administrative work until they are able to start training again.
In this case, however, department officials raised concerns that too much time had passed for the recruits to meet a 2-year time limit that state guidelines allot new cops to complete their training after they are sworn in as officers, McNicholas said.
At trial, McNicholas argued that the two-year time limit was irrelevant since the injured recruits had not yet been sworn in. In the LAPD, recruits are not given their badges and the authority that comes with them until they have nearly completed the training program.
LAPD officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, declined to discuss the details of the case. "We respectfully but strongly disagree with the jury's verdict and will take all the steps necessary to reverse it," Wilcox said in statement.
McNicholas said he offered attorneys for the city a chance to settle the case for an amount that turned out to be "a fraction" of the jury's award, but he was rebuffed. McNicholas declined to discuss the specifics of the settlement offer, but Tyler Izen, president of the union that represents rank-and-file police officers, put it at about $1 million.
"I'm disappointed that it took this long to resolve this case, especially since the department could have ended it for around $1 million," Izen said. "That's money that frankly the city doesn't have to spend."
In recent months the department has been trying to reverse troubling trends at the academy. In December, The Times reported the LAPD has struggled to maintain the size and diversity of its force as the number of people applying to join has fallen considerably. And, of those who do apply, a significantly higher number of them are being disqualified for reasons that many police officials say are specious.
In addition, the department has seen dozens of young officers depart or consider leaving over a pay dispute. The disgruntled officers have said city and department officials misled them when they made promises that a pay cut was only temporary.
Monday's verdict is also a setback for police officials who have worked to stem the steady stream of workplace lawsuits officers have brought against the department, which have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in recent years.