State Appellate Court Upholds Dismissal of L.B. Police Officer

Times Staff Writer

A state Court of Appeal has overturned a ruling that would have forced the Long Beach Police Department to rehire an officer fired in 1983 for sexually harassing women he had arrested and inciting a fight between a prisoner and jail security guards.

“A civilized society is demeaned each time its law enforcement agents sexually harass and molest persons in their custody. Such behavior should never be minimized in the civilian workplace, let alone on the police force, which is a repository of the public trust,” said the opinion authored by Judge Lynn D. Compton.

In making the ruling, the three-judge 2nd District appellate panel in Los Angeles said that Long Beach Superior Court Judge Norman Gordon overstepped legal bounds when he decided in 1985 that the dismissal of Patrolman Samuel Zavala was too severe a penalty and ordered his reinstatement.

No ‘Abuse of Discretion’


There is no indication that the Civil Service Commission showed a “manifest abuse of discretion” or acted “unreasonably or arbitrarily” in upholding the city’s firing of Zavala, so Gordon did not have legal grounds to alter that penalty, the panel found.

Attorneys for Zavala, a police officer for four years, could not be reached for comment on whether they will request a hearing before the state Supreme Court. In order to be heard, such an appeal would have to be based on a legal principle of “substantial magnitude,” said Robert Shannon, assistant city attorney.

Witnesses’ Credibility Questioned

Zavala and his patrol partner, Scott Chrisman, who was charged with similar departmental violations and also fired, have repeatedly insisted they are innocent of all charges. Their attorneys have questioned the credibility of witnesses, who they say are narcotics users, street people and prostitutes.

In his ruling 16 months ago, Gordon said the “weight of evidence” supported the city’s findings against Zavala and Chrisman. The judge decided, however, that the officers, who had lost about $34,000 in salary since their firings, should be reinstated without back pay and placed on probation. The city appealed that decision in separate cases. The Chrisman appeal is still pending.

“There is no question that these fellows were immature and used poor judgment,” Gordon said last year. “There was some harassment, but I’m not certain the penalty fit the offenses. . . .”

Guard Injured in Fight

But the appeals court said that repeated misconduct by Zavala shows he is “not amenable to rehabilitation” and lacks the ability to treat prisoners “in a manner becoming a police officer.”

The appeals panel said evidence--undisputed by either side on appeal--shows that in November, 1982, Zavala incited a fight between a prisoner and jail security guards and laughed as the altercation took place. One of the security guards was injured.

In January, 1983, Zavala patted on the buttocks a woman he had arrested on narcotics charges, and during questioning “repeatedly made references to her breasts, asked if she was wearing a brassiere and raised her blouse and viewed her bare breasts,” the appeals panel said.

On three occasions before he was suspended in April, 1983, by Police Chief Charles B. Ussery, Zavala arrested a woman, “made comments to her of a sexual nature, referred to the large size of her breasts and fondled her breasts. . . .” The woman described herself during Civil Service Commission testimony as a former prostitute.

The appellate court also noted that Zavala had been disciplined three other times before his firing. In December, 1982, he was reprimanded for arresting a suspect without sufficient cause and filing an inaccurate report to justify his conduct. In addition, he was admonished to refrain from physical contact with women prisoners and to watch his language around them. And he was reprimanded for making negative comments to prisoners about a jail security guard.