A jury has awarded three veteran Los Angeles police detectives $2.5 million in a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against their supervisors.
The verdict, delivered Friday after only a few hours of deliberation, is the latest in a long string of costly lawsuits brought by LAPD officers against fellow cops and supervisors for retaliation, harassment and other workplace abuses.
Police Chief Charlie Beck has identified the internal strife — and the Los Angeles Police Department’s inability to address it quickly — as one of the most pressing issues facing the agency. The recent case is likely to increase pressure on Beck to follow through quickly on reforms he said were intended to bring the issue under control.
A recent Los Angeles Times investigation found that from 2005 to 2010, LAPD officers sued the department more than 250 times and that the city had paid settlements or verdicts totaling more than $18 million in about 45 of those cases. Because taxpayer money is used to cover the payouts, such lawsuits have come under increasing scrutiny as the city’s financial problems persist.
The latest case was filed by Dets. Peter Bakotich, Michael Fanning and Debbie Guerrero. In 2009, the three were senior detectives assigned to the department’s Fugitive Warrants Section. Problems first arose during a training exercise, when Bakotich, who joined the department in 1972 and recently retired, spoke up to disagree with a lieutenant, Natalie Cortez, who instructed detectives to call a SWAT unit to handle certain fugitive scenarios. Cortez, who, according to Bakotich’s attorney, had little experience in fugitive cases, angrily rebuked Bakotich in front of the other detectives, documents show.
Cortez had allegedly confided to Guerrero that she wanted only women officers to fill coveted night-shift supervisor assignments, the lawsuit alleged. Guerrero recalled Cortez saying: “You can say I’m guilty of gender bias, but oh well.... I want women to succeed in this job. You do what I tell you, you’ll make it here,” according to the court documents. She also allegedly directed Guerrero to spy on the male detectives for her.
Shortly after Bakotich’s confrontation with Cortez, a captain stripped the detective of his role running a squad of detectives and relegated him to a desk assignment, Bakotich said in an interview. Fanning and Guerrero tried to intercede by speaking with the captain, Justin Eisenberg, about Cortez’s alleged behavior and statements. Eisenberg allegedly rebuffed them, telling them “they had good jobs and they could leave if they wanted,” the detectives’ lawsuit alleged.
Fanning was soon transferred out of the fugitive section. His new supervisor told him he had been warned that Fanning was “a bad influence” and “poison to a unit,” Fanning recalled in the lawsuit. Guerrero claimed Cortez forced her to work despite a knee injury and eventually was pressured to leave the section as well.
The officers filed formal complaints against Cortez, Eisenberg and Cmdr. Kevin McCarthy, who oversaw the fugitive section, but investigators from the department’s Internal Affairs Group declined to investigate their claims, according to the lawsuit.
Cortez and McCarthy did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment. Eisenberg denied wrongdoing. A spokesperson for the city attorney’s office declined to comment on the verdict other than to say the office was “disappointed” and had not yet decided whether to appeal.
The case echoes other recent ones. In April, for example, two motorcycle officers were awarded $2 million by a jury that found their captain retaliated against them when they complained about being ordered to meet an alleged traffic ticket quota. Gregory Smith, the attorney who represented Bakotich and the others, said he has won five verdicts of more than $1 million against the LAPD in the last year.
Such cases underscore the perception held by some rank-and-file officers that problem supervisors are not held accountable for their roles in workplace discord. “There’s a certain arrogance among the brass that they think the rules are different for them,” Bakotich said.
Beck declined to discuss the specifics of the current case, but disputed the notion that he goes easy on supervisors. “I am tough on my supervisors.... As with every case, we will look into this one completely. If it turns out there was management misconduct, we will deal with it.
But Beck has acknowledged department supervisors need to be better trained to recognize and resolve simmering problems before they erupt into courtroom battles. He added that coordination between the department and the city attorneys handling the cases is often flawed, and internal affairs investigators need to be more aggressive in looking into officers’ claims. Beck said that by the end of the year he expects to hire an outsider to oversee reforms, and he hopes the addition will go a long way toward improving the situation.