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Former Officer Defends Police in Courtroom : Law: Bruce D. Praet faces what may be the challenge of his legal career in the Newport police sexual harassment case.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Praetorian Guard: the bodyguard of a military commander, especially the imperial guard stationed in Rome.

--Random House Dictionary

It is only a coincidence, Bruce D. Praet says, that the ancient roots of his name reflect the course of his life.

Praet has been looking out for the interests of Orange County law enforcement officials in one way or another for more than 20 years. Today, the 39-year-old lawyer is best known for defending police officers and departments being sued for misconduct, including the charges of rape and sexual harassment now pending against the Newport Beach police chief and a captain.

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In the past three months, Praet also represented an Orange police officer who shot and killed an unarmed, 27-year-old man during a domestic dispute and a Westminster officer who killed an 18-year-old man during a birthday party that turned rowdy.

A jury found the Orange officer, Jeffrey Mundt, responsible for the shooting of Ramon Ibarra, and a state Superior Court judge awarded $250,000 to Ibarra’s family. In the Westminster case, a federal jury this month awarded $187,500 to the dead man’s family, finding that the officer violated his civil rights.

But these were Praet’s first defeats in more than a dozen jury trials involving police officers, he said. Still, his greatest professional challenge may be ahead of him, in the form of 10 current and former employees of the Newport Beach Police Department who say they were sexually harassed on the job.

If anyone should know the intricacies of a police department, it is Bruce Praet.

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After graduating from high school in Arizona, Praet came to Orange County to visit his sister, and, thinking it would be “a fun thing to do,” signed on as police cadet with the Laguna Beach Police Department at the age of 17. Two years later, when a new state law lowered the minimum age for law enforcement officials from 21 to 18, Praet graduated first in his class at the police academy and became a sworn officer, thought to be the youngest in the state.

His commander at the time, Capt. Dave Brown, discounted Praet’s youth, calling him a “special case,” a young man who had already distinguished himself in Laguna Beach.

Praet said he chose police work in part because “you can actually see the product of your efforts, be it helping somebody or arresting somebody or solving a major crime. It wasn’t that everyday, 8-to-5 job.”

However, Praet said that throughout his decade-long stint as police officer--in Laguna Beach, Garden Grove and Orange--he harbored an ambition to be a veterinarian and took undergraduate science courses at various Orange County colleges.

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When the Police Department assigned him to work with a police dog, Praet said, he thought he had found “the perfect blend of the veterinary/animal interest and police work. It was the ideal position. It was, unfortunately, tragically cut short.”

Praet’s dog died of a stomach ailment after less than a year, affecting the young officer deeply and causing him to reassess his life. For advice and counseling, he turned to his old sergeant on the Orange police force, Mike Stone. Stone had become an attorney specializing in defending police officers.

Twice before, Praet had turned to Stone, whom he considered his mentor, to defend him in lawsuits brought by people who claimed that he had mistreated them. Stone, who subsequently defended Los Angeles Police Officer Lawrence Powell in the Rodney King case, successfully defended Praet in both cases.

“I went to see him after my dog died and discuss my future plans,” Praet recalled, “and he said, ‘Why don’t you become a lawyer instead of a vet?’ ”

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The suggestion made sense, Praet said, and doing the same kind of work Stone was doing “seemed to be a natural transition.”

Praet thought it would be “a waste to put 10 years into one field and then go into something like family law, or corporate law where I have no real life experience. . . . I had unique life experience that I could apply to my next career, being the practice of law.”

He graduated from Western State University College of Law in 1985. After clerking for Stone’s firm, Praet began work in what was to become his specialty: civil practice, representing police accused of misconduct.

His Santa Ana firm, Ferguson, Praet & Sherman, now represents about 40 police agencies in California, eight in Orange County. He also counsels police departments about how to avoid lawsuits.

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One of those Praet consults with regularly is Lt. Andrew E. Hall, head of administrative services for the Westminster Police Department.

“The guy’s remarkable,” Hall said. “He’s still able to think like a police officer, putting abstract legal theory into black and white. I consult him frequently, on everything from employee work breaks to use of force to off-duty use of weapons.”

Hall said he admires Praet so much that “I started law school two years ago. I was that impressed.”

Praise for Praet is not universal, however.

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Some opposing lawyers charge that Praet tries to get inadmissible and inflammatory evidence before juries. In the Martinez case, attorney Christopher B. Mears complained that Praet unfairly raised the issue of Latino street gangs.

But Gregory J. Owen, who opposed Praet in the Ibarra trial, called him “as aggressive as you can be without stepping over the line. He defends his clients as zealously as possible. It’s just good, hard, aggressive lawyering,” Owen said, ranking Praet “a hard 10 on a scale of one to 10.”

While Praet may not tell jurors about his background, Owen said that in the Ibarra trial Praet “left no doubt in their mind that he had been a police officer.”

Praet’s highest profile case to date involves charges by 10 women that they were sexually harassed while working for the Newport Beach Police Department. Since the charges were made, Chief Arb Campbell, Praet’s client, has been fired, and the department has begun procedures to fire Capt. Anthony J. Villa Jr. Both men are named in the lawsuit.

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Charges of sexual harassment, Praet said, are the “trend of the ‘90s,” although he doesn’t deny that the problem exists.

“I absolutely believe that certainly there is such a thing as sexual harassment in the workplace, and it’s wrong and it should be dealt with severely,” he said. “But what we at least initially seem to be seeing is an awful lot of people jumping on this bandwagon and trying to divert attention from their own misconduct or problems by accusing their supervisors or their chiefs, the people who are disciplining them.”

In the Newport Beach case, Praet said, his defense to the sexual abuse charges will be simple: “It didn’t happen. Period.”

A tall bachelor with an athletic build, Praet is still a dedicated animal lover, who recently received two puppies ordered from Denmark. But his real non-professional passion is observing and swimming with sharks--lawyer jokes about professional courtesy notwithstanding.

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Praet spends much of his spare time with a friend, surveying sharks--without a shark cage--in the channel between Orange County and Catalina Island. While he has never encountered a great white, Praet insists that “sharks are not what (“Jaws” author) Peter Benchley makes them out to be.”


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