$6 Million to Be Paid in 9 Police Suits
A city attorney warned that juries could award huge damages if the whistle-blower cases filed by LAPD officers went to trial.By Jessica Garrison and Scott Glover
Times Staff Writers
December 18, 2003
Fearing explosive testimony in court, the city of Los Angeles agreed Wednesday to pay a former police officer nearly $2 million to settle his claim that he was fired and suffered other retaliation after reporting apparent acts of excessive force by fellow officers.
The City Council approved the payment, along with $2 million to settle eight other lawsuits by Los Angeles Police Department officers who charged similar retaliation plus $2 million in fees for the officers' attorneys.
Among the cases were one officer's contention that he lost his job after reporting that an officer planted a gun after a shooting and, in an unrelated incident, that another officer struck a pregnant woman in the stomach. In another claim, an officer said he was shunned and threatened after testifying that the 1999 fatal shooting of a homeless woman, Margaret Mitchell, was unnecessary.
In a confidential memo, Deputy City Atty. Angel Manzano urged council members not to let the cases go to trial, warning that the city could face a huge financial risk if jurors were allowed to award damages.
But even as they voted to settle, some council members expressed concerns about the department's handling of the cases — particularly about whether police officials appropriately addressed the alleged misconduct.
"I find the case extraordinarily troubling on many levels," said Councilman Jack Weiss, who said he wanted the department to explain what exactly happened in the underlying cases.
Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa also called on the city attorney and LAPD leaders to report on how they planned to prevent future lawsuits involving discrimination, retaliation and whistle-blowing.
"While a major concern is the cost to our taxpayers, I am also concerned about the message it sends … that someone reporting wrongdoing could be punished for it," Villaraigosa said.
Only Councilman Dennis Zine, a former police officer, voted against the settlement, calling it outrageous and saying: "In good conscience I could not support those payouts to the tune of millions of dollars."
LAPD Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said he had not seen details of the settlement and would not comment on it.
The largest payment went to Warren Brooks, who was fired in December 2002 after spending 15 years at the LAPD and acquiring a reputation for "doing things 'by the book,' " according to Manzano's memo.
The Police Department said it fired Brooks because he gave false and misleading testimony to a police Board of Rights panel that was investigating misconduct, according to the memo. But Brooks sued, saying the real reason he was terminated was because he broke the code of silence and reported two cases of misconduct by fellow officers.
In one case he said he saw an officer pull a gun out of his waistband in February 1999 and plant it at a crime scene, shortly after the officer fired at a suspect and said the suspect pointed a weapon at him.
Brooks also reported that another officer struck a pregnant woman in the stomach with his club in July 1999 while helping quell a disturbance at the Jordan Downs housing project. Brooks said he told his superiors about that incident the day it occurred; two days later, he filed a written report on the matter.
Nevertheless, the department charged him with failing to properly document the incident. In November 2001, a police disciplinary panel found him guilty and suspended him for five days without pay.
According to the city attorney's memo, Brooks was the only officer to file a written report regarding the incident. And although charges were brought against three other officers for not reporting the incident, Brooks was the only one to be disciplined.
Brooks appealed that suspension in Los Angeles County Superior Court, and a judge overturned the imposition of discipline.
But in 2002 another LAPD disciplinary panel accused Brooks of providing false and misleading testimony during his first hearing, saying that his testimony at that hearing did not conform with his tape-recorded statements to internal affairs investigators. The city attorney's memo said that convening the panel arguably violated the judge's order.
Brooks failed to appear before that panel, claiming stress. And on Dec. 18, 2002, the panel found him guilty in absentia and terminated his employment.
Given all that, Manzano's memo argued, a jury could find that the LAPD's "disciplinary system was manipulated so as to target Brooks and ultimately terminate his employment."
The memo added that "the fact that the actions against him occurred after his complaints regarding alleged misconduct, and that prior thereto he had a good record … may also lead a jury to conclude that a retaliatory motive was at work."
"The facts of this case could lead a jury to award several million dollars," the memo added.
Under the terms approved Wednesday, Brooks will receive a $1.24-million payment, along with $615,000 to settle a workers' compensation claim. His personnel record will also be changed to say that he retired, instead of being fired, and he will receive a retirement identification card and a badge. In return, he promises never to seek another job in the city.
Brooks would not comment about the settlement, citing an agreement with city lawyers not to discuss the details of the lawsuit.
In previous interviews with The Times, however, he said he relished the opportunity to testify against the Police Department in court.
He predicted long ago that city lawyers would settle the case because, he said, they knew they had no way to explain the Police Department's actions and because they were fearful of what else he might say on the stand.
"They don't want anything to do with me," he said. "They know better."
Other cases appeared less incendiary, and cost the city less money.
One officer, Barry Brooks, will receive a $150,000 payment. He said he was subjected to ongoing retaliation because he complained that a police captain was giving preferential treatment to lesbian officers.
Another officer, Craig Crosby, will get $983,000. Crosby says he was retaliated against because he blew the whistle on the mismanagement of hundreds of millions of dollars of computer contracts.
In another high-profile case, the city will pay Officer John Goines $400,000 in lost wages, damages and workers' compensation claims.
Goines said he was shunned and that department officials threatened to file an unwarranted personnel complaint against him because he testified that the 1999 shooting of Mitchell should not have occurred.
Mitchell was shot in May 1999 near 4th Street and La Brea Avenue shortly after two bike patrol officers stopped her to see if her shopping cart was stolen.
At one point, the 102-pound Mitchell pulled a 12-inch screwdriver from a pile of clothes in the shopping cart and began waving it. One of the officers shot her after she allegedly lunged at him.
Her death led to nationwide publicity and numerous public demonstrations against the department alleging police brutality.
The nine cases settled Wednesday were part of a larger class-action lawsuit against the Police Department and the city over alleged discrimination and retaliation.
Many of those cases were dismissed and others were settled, according to officials.
Eric Moses, a spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, defended the settlements, saying: "We worked hard to reduce the city's liability." According to the memo, officials estimated the city could face jury verdicts totaling $40 million for all the cases, not to mention the costs to the city to try them.
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who was chief of police for much of the period covered in the lawsuits, was recused from considering the settlements.
In general, Parks said, such lawsuits represent an unfortunate trend of employees "who get in trouble and seek to use retaliation as a defense."