In one of the largest settlements of its type in California, the city of Hawthorne agreed Thursday to pay nearly $2 million to resolve a lawsuit in which members of the Vagos motorcycle club and others claimed they were targets of massive police abuse in the early 1980s.
The settlement, which involved 70 plaintiffs who claimed their rights had been violated by the Hawthorne Police Department, brought an end to a civil trial that had been under way for more than three months in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Attorneys for the Vagos said the settlement was a vindication of their clients' claims that Hawthorne police officers had engaged in a campaign of harassment against the bikers.
"I don't think anybody expected a motorcycle club to achieve this kind of victory," said Paul Hoffman of the American Civil Liberties Union, the lead attorney in the case. "But we demonstrated that when anyone's rights are violated, you can get full vindication in our system."
Hoffman added that the hefty settlement should send a clear message to the Hawthorne Police Department to change its "abusive" tactics which, he argued during the trial, extended beyond the Vagos to other minority groups in the community.
Representatives of the city had no comment on the settlement. Specifically named as defendants in the suit were former Hawthorne Police Chief Kenneth R. Stonebraker, three of his lieutenants and a sergeant. Numerous unnamed officers who participated in the searches also were listed as defendants.
After attorney fees are paid, about $1.5 million of the money will be divided among the plaintiffs. Some of the money is meant to compensate them for damage to their homes sustained during police raids seven years ago.
Witnesseses testified during the trial that police broke down doors, ransacked drawers and confiscated motorcycles and cars during searches of members' homes, and even searches of neighbors' homes.
But the property damage was relatively minor, attorneys said, compared to the violation of the plaintiffs' civil rights. Witnesses said that during the raids police pointed guns at the heads of children, used obscene language against women, used unnecessary force and made false arrests.
"The money doesn't matter," said plaintiff Lenard Barela, 42, after the settlement agreement hearing. "All we wanted was for (police) to get the message that we're people too and the law applies to everybody."
Barela said that members of the Vagos, formed in the 1960s to fight off the outlaw Hells Angels, have almost grown used to harassment from police. "It's part of the game and they have a job to do," he said. "But when they terrorize my kids, they're pushing too far.
Police said they launched the 1983 raids in a manhunt for a club member suspected of stabbing three men in a bar fight. The plaintiff's lawyers, however, argued that the homes were raided merely to harass the families in a ploy to pressure the suspect to give himself up.
Club members charged that the raids were part of a pattern of harassment against them that had lasted for years. Members were often stopped by police on any excuse, including "wearing green" in the city, said Barela. The club's emblem, which members wear on the backs of their sleeveless jackets, is green.
More than 80 witnesses were called during the trial before Judge Maurice Hogan Jr.
But it was a former Hawthorne police officer who provided some of the key testimony for the plaintiffs.
Dana Griffith, who now lives in Texas, testified that his colleagues made unwarranted arrests, wrote false crime reports and roughed up suspects, all with their superiors' approval. Griffith said that officers routinely referred to incidents involving blacks, Latinos, motorcycle gangs or poor whites as "N.H.I." or "no human involvement."
ACLU attorneys argued that the alleged harassment campaign against the motorcycle club and other groups was a result of an overzealous get-tough stance by city and police officials.
"The best way to change the city's policy is to impose substantial damages," Hoffman said after the settlement agreement. "This will cause the Police Department to change as rapidly as anything anybody can do."
Griffith, however, was not optimistic. The disgruntled former officer said he has been unable to get another job in law enforcement. He contends that Hawthorne police smeared his reputation by claiming he was the subject of a murder investigation, although no charges have ever been filed.
Griffith predicted that Hawthorne police officers would escalate their harassment of the Vagos because of the court settlement.