The Beverly Hills City Council meeting was off to a fairly tame start.
Retiring members of the city’s architecture and design review committees mugged for photos at the council dais, delivering pleasant and innocuous remarks that were met by eager rounds of applause. The owner of a local cafe was honored, declaring the five years he’d lived in Beverly Hills the “happiest time” of his life.
Then someone in the back of the room held up a sign comparing the city’s police chief to Adolf Hitler.
The sudden and shocking demonstration — carried out in July of last year by roughly a dozen protesters, some of whom said they were not from the city — was indicative of what had become a lengthy, ugly and costly legal battle between Beverly Hills’ first female police chief and a growing number of dissidents within the department.
In the last two years, at least 20 current and former employees have filed lawsuits or employment complaints accusing Chief Sandra Spagnoli of making racist and anti-Semitic remarks, denying them promotions and engaging in sexual affairs with subordinate officers.
The wave of accusations has left the affluent city of 35,000 reeling and on the defensive. Recently, the city attorney’s office hired Michael Sitrick — the crisis public relations specialist who clients have included business titans as well as celebrities in trouble ranging from Paris Hilton to Harvey Weinstein— to help the city navigate the optics nightmare created by the litigation. Spagnoli spoke publicly about the lawsuits for the first time last week, dismissing the allegations as a smear campaign orchestrated by disgruntled employees who are angry about reforms that have marked her early tenure in Beverly Hills.
But on Friday, little more than 24 hours after Spagnoli repeatedly denied wrongdoing in an interview with The Times, the city said its insurance company had advised the city to settle the first of the lawsuits against her for $2.3 million.
“I submit to you an insurance company isn’t going to pay $2.3 million unless it believes we have demonstrated a very strong case,” said attorney Brad Gage, who represents several people who have made claims against Spagnoli.
The announcement of the settlement marked the latest turbulent moment in Spagnoli’s two years leading the Beverly Hills Police Department.
A veteran law enforcement officer who previously served as the chief of the San Leandro and Benicia police departments in Northern California, Spagnoli’s hiring was met with much praise in 2016, after the city’s former chief retired amid questions that he was drawing a second salary from a private-sector job.
Spagnoli received a glowing writeup in Vogue, and she has served as board member for the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, which recently awarded her for “accomplishments which have paved the way for other women in public safety.”
A self-described “change agent,” Spagnoli also has been given high marks by the city’s mayor and council members, who have praised her for restructuring the agency’s command staff and improving disciplinary and promotional procedures. A recent internal assessment, commissioned by the city and made public this year, found the majority of its employees were satisfied with the way the agency was being run.
At least 21 current and former department employees, however, have filed civil lawsuits or employment complaints that accuse Spagnoli of a range of misconduct ranging from off-color remarks to outright racism and sexual misconduct, according to court records reviewed by The Times.
The allegations include claims that Spagnoli referred to the yarmulkes worn by observant Jews as “funny little hats,” asked if she had to “dress Mexican” when invited to dinner at a Latino employee’s home and reacted with revulsion when informed that an employee was gay. Some of the court documents contain allegations that Spagnoli had sex with subordinate officers who were later rewarded with promotions.
Spagnoli flatly denied the allegations regarding sexual relationships. In reference to the alleged racist and anti-Semitic remarks, Spagnoli said she was “not racist” but stopped short of denying that she had made the comments. Beverly Hills City Atty. Larry Wiener said last week he would not “litigate this in the newspaper” and declined to discuss specific allegations. Mayor Julian Gold intimated the comments had been taken out of context.
“Sometimes people take offense at things that were not meant to be offensive,” he said. “I have no idea, I could only speculate.”
In one filing, Gage said the number of people making allegations against Spagnoli could balloon to 30 by the end of the year. There are about 245 sworn and civilian employees in the department, meaning nearly 10% of the agency has filed complaints against the boss.
The settlement announced Friday stemmed from a lawsuit brought by Capt. Mark Rosen, who had accused Spagnoli of denying him promotional opportunities based on his religion and making anti-Semitic remarks. During a news conference Monday, Rosen said he felt vindicated by the settlement but remained concerned about the Police Department’s future.
“I am concerned for my coworkers I am leaving behind,” he said, “the officers and civilians alike who continue to be victimized.”
In a Nov. 21 filing, Gage wrote that Rosen was the “top candidate” for the vacant chief’s post in early 2016, before Spagnoli was appointed. Neither Gage nor the city would say if they believed a power struggle over the chief’s position played a role in recent litigation.
In a statement announcing the settlement last week, the city said it decided to pay Rosen on the advice of its insurance company. A city spokesman declined to elaborate or explain the reasoning behind the payout.
Spagnoli granted her first interview about the lawsuits to The Times last week and suggested the complaints were brought by disgruntled employees aggravated by reform efforts she had made since 2016, which included modifications to the department’s disciplinary system and command structure.
“If you actually look at the history of the department, specifically as it relates to disciplinary matters,” she said, “the former administration was not enforcing those in a consistent manner.”
Spagnoli also denied the allegations regarding sexual misconduct.
“I’m disappointed at some of the personal attacks against me, particularly because I can tell you I love this community. I love being a key factor in public safety and making a difference,” she said. “For the most part, all of our employees are a tremendous asset to the city. It hasn’t been easy running the department while under fire from different directions.”
Gold also rushed to Spagnoli’s defense and scoffed at the suggestion that she had ever made an anti-Semitic remark.
“Of all the allegations, that is the one you really have to raise your eyebrow at. In the first place, we have 11 elected officials — five on the school board, five on the City Council and the city treasurer. They are all Jewish,” Gold said. “The notion she made anti-Semitic comments in that sort of environment does not make any sense.”
Despite the mounting accusations, Spagnoli said she was simply the victim of officers resistant to reform.
“When you implement change,” she said, “you create some waves within an organization, which is what has happened here.”