The Sue Me, Sue You LAPD Blues
In my most recent column, I described the exasperation felt by many front-line LAPD officers and detectives at having to work for superiors whose courage, intelligence, integrity, sobriety, or sanity is less than we might wish. But I neglected to inform readers that vexation within the ranks is hardly the only price that’s paid for poor leadership in the department. Sometimes it comes down to real dollars, lots and lots of them.
On May 8, the Los Angeles Times published a story on the multi-million-dollar jury awards some LAPD officers have received as the result of lawsuits based on claims of suffering at the hands of department managers. The story, by Times writer Joel Rubin, told of such cases as these:
Two motorcycle officers were awarded a total of $2 million after alleging their captain and other supervisors retaliated against them when they complained about illegal ticket quotas.
An officer was awarded nearly $4 million after a jury found he had been unjustly fired for having testified against the department in a labor dispute.
The city settled a case for $3.8 million with an officer who alleged he had been harassed and transferred to a less desirable assignment after he reported that a supervisor had used racial epithets and might have been involved in the embezzlement of department funds.
A female officer in the bomb-detection canine unit settled her case for $2.25 million after alleging sexual harassment by coworkers and supervisors. She further alleged retaliation by supervisors after she complained. Another officer in the same unit was awarded $3.6 million by a jury after alleging that he was retaliated against for coming to the female officer’s defense. (He later settled his case for $2.5 million and a promise from the city not to appeal.) Even more remarkable is the $750,000 judgment awarded to one of the accused officers’ supervisors after he himself sued, alleging that his own superiors retaliated against him for the way he handled the sexual harassment complaint.
Thus in this last case the city’s taxpayers will be splashing out lavishly to compensate not only the victim of sexual harassment but also one of the alleged perpetrators. Only through bad management, bad lawyering, or some combination of both can such an outcome occur. No one familiar with the way the LAPD and the city attorney’s office are run can be surprised by this.
The Times followed up on the news story with a May 11 editorial, imploring the LAPD to “get a handle on officer lawsuits.” “This city’s police officers appear to be abnormally litigious,” said the Times, “suing their department at rates far higher than their counterparts in other big cities.”
As I approach the end of my long career with the LAPD, what I find remarkable is not how often officers sue the department, but rather how seldom they do. I am not optimistic that things will change soon.
A mentor of mine, now long retired and living happily far, far away from Los Angeles, once explained for me the difference between police officers who do police work and those who devote themselves to advancing up the chain of command. The “climbers,” he said, are mystified at how police work is actually performed on the streets. They sit in roll call and watch as other officers are handed subpoenas to appear in court day after day after making good arrests. As their own inferiority becomes more and more apparent, both to themselves and to their coworkers, they become envious and even contemptuous of those whose police skills have outpaced their own. And while their more skilled colleagues are developing expertise at making cases, the climbers busy themselves with studying for promotion so as to advance into positions that allow them to second-guess and belittle those who do the work they themselves were incapable of doing.
Worse, the culture of the department’s command officers is such that timidity and even cowardice is often rewarded. The best boss one can have in the LAPD is one who is content to remain at his current rank. But people looking ahead to their next promotion tend to avoid making decisions that might in any way lead to controversy and impede their acquiring that next bar or star on their collars. This has been shown to be true even in hypothetical exercises during training sessions.
Officers throughout the LAPD are now undergoing training on how to respond to a terrorist attack such as occurred in Mumbai, India, in 2008. Classes are broken up into small groups and then presented a scenario depicting an attack against a target somewhere in Los Angeles. The goal of the training is to ensure that officers at any rank and any assignment are prepared to take immediate action when faced with such an attack, yet some supervisors have said they wouldn’t come anywhere near it if one were to occur. Having such an attitude is pathetic enough, but boldly admitting to it without the expectation of consequences shows how poorly the LAPD sometimes chooses its leaders.
Some time ago an officer approached me and sought my advice on a problem he was having with a supervisor at his division. The officer has a solid reputation and an unblemished record, yet he felt the supervisor had acted unprofessionally toward him and had told others that he, the supervisor, would target the officer for disciplinary action should the opportunity -- real or imagined -- arise. The matter had been brought to the attention of the division’s captain, and the officer asked me what I thought should and would be done.
There was a solution that readily suggested itself, I said, one that held the promise of a significant upside for the officer while having little or no potential downside for the supervisor, the captain, or the department. I told the officer what course I would follow if I were the captain.
“Do you think that’s what he’ll do?” asked the officer.
“I doubt it,” I said. “Never underestimate the chain of command’s capacity for doing the wrong thing.”
And indeed the wrong thing is exactly what was done, turning a small problem into a big one, dispiriting a motivated police officer, and exposing the department to a potential lawsuit to be lamented by the Los Angeles Times in some future editorial.
And what’s more unfortunate still is that when this column is posted, there will be many within the LAPD who are more desirous of finding and silencing me than they are of fixing the problems I’ve written about.
I’m not worried. If they mess with me, I’ll sue.