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L.A. County jury awards $4 million to former LAPD officer

A Los Angeles County jury Tuesday awarded a former Los Angeles police officer nearly $4 million in his case against the LAPD, concluding the officer was fired in retaliation for testifying against the department in a labor dispute.

The verdict, which stems from one of several similar lawsuits that thousands of disgruntled LAPD officers are pursuing against the department, underscores a long-running, internal rift between LAPD cops and the department’s command staff that could ultimately cost the city millions of dollars more.

In January 2008, Richard Romney was an 18-year veteran of the LAPD, having spent his career as a rank-and-file patrol cop. That month, he testified in a federal lawsuit that another officer had brought against the LAPD. In that case, the officer accused the department of skirting the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law that, in part, sets rules on when officers must be compensated for overtime work.

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Romney testified that the high volume of calls for help during a typical patrol shift in South L.A. meant that he often did not take the 45-minute meal break officers are allotted. Instead of asking to be paid for this extra work, however, Romney said he followed what he described as an “unwritten policy” in the department that effectively barred officers from requesting pay for less than an hour of overtime work.

“Your captain would refuse to approve requests for under an hour,” Romney said in an interview. “And you’d be ostracized and looked at as not being a team player.”

Days after he took the stand, LAPD officials opened an investigation into Romney, alleging he had admitted in open court to violating the department’s written policies on overtime. Then-Chief William J. Bratton rejected a recommendation that Romney be given a light, one-day suspension and, instead, called on a discipline panel to fire Romney. The panel agreed, and Romney was kicked out in February 2009.

“Juries don’t always get it right,” said LAPD Cmdr. Stuart Maislin, who, at the time, headed the department’s Risk Management Division and opened the investigation into Romney.

Romney’s testimony, Maislin said, was a familiar refrain. In recent years, officers have filed lawsuits alleging that the department violated federal overtime laws. Roughly 2,500 officers decided to join one of the lawsuits, according to Maislin.

Looking to make a stand on the matter, Bratton, in 2005, sent a written memo and video message to the entire force clarifying the department’s policy on overtime and ordering an end to any unofficial practices that made officers feel as if they weren’t entitled to overtime, Maislin said. And, “at that time, it was decided that we would begin to strictly enforce the department’s policies.”

So, three years later, when Romney testified, the department decided that it had to act, Maislin said. Romney’s testimony was particularly troubling, Maislin said, because as a field training officer Romney had testified that he also instructed probationary officers under his supervision not to follow the department’s official overtime rules.

Maislin testified at Romney’s civil trial that the unresolved lawsuits could result in a heavy financial burden for the department. He noted that an attorney representing many of the officers in the cases had estimated the potential payout in verdicts or settlements at between $100 million and $150 million.

The lawsuits, Maislin said, had given rise to an atmosphere in which officers are looking for a “huge payday.”

joel.rubin@latimes.com


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