Robert Hill did not join the Los Angeles Police Department to become a millionaire. And yet, that’s what happened in September when city officials cut the veteran cop and his lawyer a check for nearly $4 million.
The money was compensation for the snide comments and other abuse Hill suffered at the hands of other LAPD officers after he reported that a supervisor used racial slurs and embezzled department funds.
In the last decade, at least 16 other officers have won million-dollar-plus jury verdicts or settlements from the city in lawsuits in which they leveled accusations of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, retaliation and other workplace injustices. Dozens more officers have won five- or six-figure paydays.
“These cases irk the heck out of me,” said City Councilman Greig Smith, who has been a critic of the city’s job-protection rules that, he said, make it too difficult to fire officers who cause workplace problems. “Somebody running a private company would never let this … stand. Why do we let it happen here? And we see the same things happening over and over again.”
City records show that from 2005 to 2010, officers have sued the department over workplace issues more than 250 times. The city has paid settlements or verdicts totaling more than $18 million in about 45 of those cases and has lost several other verdicts worth several million dollars more in cases it is appealing, a review of the records shows. The city has prevailed in about 50 cases. The rest, representing tens of millions of dollars in potential liability, remain open.
Litigious officers have bedeviled Los Angeles police chiefs and city lawyers for decades, and a survey of large police departments across the country indicates that LAPD officers file suit more than others.
Los Angeles police, for example, brought an average of about three times more lawsuits a year per officer than officers in Chicago and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. And there were about a third fewer lawsuits among Boston police.
Officer-driven lawsuits have come under greater scrutiny in recent years as Los Angeles’ financial problems have gotten worse. Elected officials and the LAPD’s independent watchdog believe the department should be doing more to deter workplace conflict and avoid the expensive litigation.
Beyond the financial toll, the cases often amount to embarrassing, public airings of the department’s dirty laundry — nasty fights that expose crude behavior by officers and a retaliatory mindset of supervisors that undermine efforts by senior officials to present the LAPD as a smoothly run operation.
The case of Patricia Fuller, who at the time was the only woman serving as a dog handler in the LAPD’s canine unit, underscores how contentious and costly workplace incidents can become for the city.
Fuller had accused men in the unit of making vulgar sexual advances and comments, while also excluding her from training exercises, court records show. In 2009, city officials paid Fuller $2.25 million to settle her claims.
Then another canine officer, Donald Bender, filed a lawsuit alleging that he had been stripped of a rank and kicked out of the unit as retaliation for coming to Fuller’s defense.
He was followed by Blaine Blackstone, a sergeant who supervised Fuller. Blackstone said he had been the target of retaliation by superiors after he refused their demands that he placate Fuller by changing her performance evaluation.
The city refused to settle with Bender and Blackstone, and both officers won their cases. Bender received $2.5 million and Blackstone was awarded nearly $750,000 in damages, court records show.
For Hill, who said the retaliation against him included being followed by other officers, falsely accused of misconduct and removed from a coveted assignment, knowing the large verdict he won came from taxpayers left him with mixed feelings.
“Here I was a public servant suing the city, basically suing the taxpayers who I was committed to protecting,” Hill said. “What I really wanted was for the names of the people who had harmed me to be on that lawsuit. I wanted the money to come out of their pockets. I felt bad that the wrong people were paying, but it was the only recourse I had as an officer.”
Large verdicts can be a financial boon for rank-and-file police officers who earn $45,000 to about $85,000, depending on the number of years they have served. Some, like Hill, choose to remain on the job, while others leave. Beyond the money, some who have been fired have successfully sued to get their jobs back.
The question of whether to settle a case or take the officer to court can be a dicey one for city and police officials. Settle too easily, the thinking goes, and the department will be seen by officers and attorneys as an easy target. Taking too hard a stand, however, carries risks as well. Employment cases are difficult to defend against, lawyers say, since they often turn on emotional issues and differing perceptions of what occurred.
“If you settle, all you’re doing is encouraging other officers to file more lawsuits,” said LAPD Cmdr. Stuart Maislin, who for several years ran the department’s Risk Management Division. “It sends the message that the city is just giving away money — that an officer just has to make a claim and they’ll walk away with some money in their pocket. The only way to stop that is to take them to court and fight them.”
“When we lose,” Maislin added, “we lose big.”
In general, City Atty. Carman Trutanich and Gerald Chaleff, a senior advisor to LAPD Chief Charlie Beck who oversees employee lawsuits, have pursued a hard-line approach with officers in recent years, refusing to settle except in those cases where it is clear the city is likely to lose in court.
That tough stance has led to mixed results. The city has lost a handful of jury verdicts that could have been avoided if it had been willing to settle.
Attorney Matthew McNicholas, for example, represented Richard Romney, an officer who was fired after he testified about the department’s overtime policy in a labor dispute; Melissa Borck, who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit; and Bender, the canine officer. McNicholas offered to settle the three cases for a total of $2 million, but police officials and city lawyers were adamant about taking all three to court and ended up losing verdicts totaling about $9.5 million.
Understaffing and a lack of lawyers with experience in workplace issues in the city attorney’s office has hampered the city’s ability to defend itself against such lawsuits in court, officials said. Bill Carter, Trutanich’s chief deputy, said overworked attorneys have missed court-filing deadlines, failed to take important depositions and made other blunders on employment cases.
“We’re creating a recipe for disaster,” Carter said.
The recent high-dollar verdicts and settlements suggest that the department needs to do more to mediate workplace conflicts, said Nicole Bershon, inspector general for the Los Angeles Police Commission. That should include bringing in impartial employment experts to help resolve conflicts before they reach a courtroom, she said.
The department also has come under fire for failing to thoroughly investigate complaints of workplace problems. In a 2010 audit of LAPD investigations into employee allegations of retaliation, Bershon’s office found that investigators routinely neglected to interview people accused of misconduct, or even name them in the investigations.
The way the department handles officer lawsuits has become a source of increasingly hostile fodder for the Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers and sometimes assists officers in bringing their suits.
Emboldened by recent high-profile verdicts for officers, union officials have grown vocal at what they see as the unwillingness or inability of senior LAPD officials to deal with problems in the workplace — a charge department leaders deny.
“I’ve got a news flash for … the ‘leaders’ who are tasked with ensuring the Department treats its people fairly. Look in the mirror to find out where the problems are,” Sgt. John Mumma, the union’s secretary, wrote in a recent open letter published in the union’s magazine. “How many more officers are going to become millionaires over the botched handling of their cases?”