Ex-Anaheim Officer Wins $340,000 Award Over Firing


Capping a five-year battle to restore his reputation, a former Anaheim police officer Thursday was awarded $340,000 for being fired after reporting alleged police brutality.

The jury deliberated for less than three hours before deciding on the amount of economic and emotional damages to be awarded to 34-year-old Steve Nolan, ending a monthlong civil trial in Orange County Superior Court.

Three days earlier, the jury had rejected the city’s claims that Nolan was fired for insubordination and other disciplinary reasons, instead believing he was retaliated against for breaking an unwritten “code of silence” among officers.


“You have no idea how difficult it is to break that code of silence,” Nolan said Thursday. “People will tell you that it doesn’t exist, but it does exist. It’s a way of life.”

Nolan and his lawyers said later that they believe the episodes of alleged police brutality reported by Nolan are not the only instances of excessive force that have been tolerated or covered up by Anaheim police over the years.

“I think the city of Anaheim still has a lot of skeletons in the closet and those skeletons will be walking out in the next year,” said Steven R. Pingel, one of Nolan’s attorneys.

But the city remained steadfastly unrepentant Thursday.

“Something that is not broken is not going to be fixed,” said attorney Richard M. Kreisler, who represented Anaheim during the trial.

“The way this department delivers service to the community is without peer,” Kreisler said. “I think the most important thing to realize is that this case was never a referendum on the Anaheim Police Department. This was an employee-employer dispute. This is not an excessive force case.”

Nolan’s lawsuit, filed in May 1995, is based on a section of the state Labor Code which prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for disclosing information the employee believes is in violation of the law.

The city stipulated before the trial that Nolan had reported what he believed to be instances of excessive force in 1991 and 1992. This resulted in only limited testimony about the incidents, which Nolan said involved members of the department’s gang unit beating suspected Latino gang members.

An internal Police Department investigation concluded that wrongful conduct by the officers Nolan named could not be proven, and no disciplinary action was taken against them. Nolan contends the investigation was not carried out properly and that no one was punished after the incidents except him.

Kreisler, who labeled Nolan’s claims of retaliation as “fabricated and baseless” during the trial, said the city has not yet decided whether it will appeal the verdict. The attorney did acknowledge that Nolan had suffered emotional distress and should receive some small amount of compensation.

The jury awarded Nolan $180,000 for the emotional distress brought on by the termination, but they did not believe his contention that he could not revive his career elsewhere because his professional reputation had been irrevocably tainted.

“We mostly looked at past damages and not future damages,” said juror Cristie Chastain. “Mr. Nolan could possibly get a job in another area and get a job comparable to the one he had.”

While finding Nolan to be “a believable person,” Chastain said the jury believed he had Hnot tried hard enough to find other work during the years that it took for his case to reach trial. The jury also believed the city had proven that other work was available to Nolan.

The economic damages of $160,000 awarded by the jury reflect what the former officer would have earned had he not been fired. He was earning from $50,000 to $60,000 a year, including overtime, when he was fired.

The trial was an emotional one for Nolan, the recipient of two distinguished service awards during his eight years with the department. His personal problems both on and off the force were detailed in court. He was portrayed as a temperamental officer who had personality conflicts with his co-workers, insulted their wives, made racial slurs and had problems with alcohol.

Several former colleagues, some who were once close friends, testified against Nolan.

“They basically made me out to look like the antichrist,” Nolan said. “The hardest part of all of this was having the city call you a liar and a racist and fling mud at you. Thank God this wonderful jury listened and decided who was telling the truth.”

Nolan said his troubles with colleagues began 1992 when his complaints about the alleged brutality were not kept anonymous by his superiors. As a result, strained relationships developed between him and his co-workers, and Nolan eventually transferred out of the gang unit and returned to patrol.

During the trial, Nolan’s attorneys contended that their client was set up to be fired in March 1993 with false charges involving the hiding of a file in a gang investigation.

In August 1994, an outside arbitrator overturned the firing but Nolan never returned to work. Nolan testified that he began receiving anonymous telephone threats shortly before his scheduled return, and he grew afraid.

Despite the years of anguish and legal wrangling, Nolan said he has no regrets about coming forward.

“It’s been a long, hard battle,” he said. “But I’d do it again in a heartbeat and I’d encourage other law enforcement officers to do the same thing.”

For Nolan’s family, the strain has been considerable.

“It’s been horrible, really, really horrible,” said his wife, Annie. “But I’m really proud of him. What he did was right. We can go home and tell our kids we did the right thing.”

While his civil court battle may be over, Nolan is still battling the city over workers’ compensation benefits and a disability retirement.

Meanwhile, a community activist group has called for the resignation of Anaheim Police Chief Randall Gaston, who attended each day of the trial but was not present for Thursday’s verdict on damages.

“The police chief is accountable for his officers and this shows that he does not hold his officers accountable,” said Josie Montoya, co-founder of United Neighborhoods. “Maybe it is time that he retire or be recalled. . . .

“The code of silence has been broken,” Montoya added. “We in the community have been aware of the code of silence for a very long time. There has been nothing we have been able to prove, of course, because it’s always been denied. Police can never investigate police.”

Gaston did not return telephone calls Thursday. But Anaheim City Councilman Bob Zemel expressed his continued faith in the chief and the department.

“My door is open to look at any accusations and always will be open,” Zemel said. “No one has brought me anything that tells me we are doing anything but a good job. Crime is down and citizens feel safer.”