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L.B. Rejects Review Panel for Fired Cops

March 26, 1987|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The City Council refused Tuesday to set up a special panel to determine whether two fired Long Beach police officers were victims of a vendetta by a former police chief as their attorney alleged in a rare, out-of-court appeal to the council.

On Wednesday, the former officers, Scott Chrisman and Samuel Zavala, formally notified the city that it would be named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit to be filed today. The suit will claim that their constitutional rights were violated by Police Department investigators and former Chief Charles B. Ussery when they were fired in 1983.

The internal affairs investigators withheld key evidence that would have discredited witnesses identified in court documents as former prostitutes, who testified that the officers sexually harassed them, attorney Samuel (Skip) Keesal told the council.

Ussery, who retired last November, ignored a suspension recommendation by a deputy chief and recommended that the officers be fired about three months after Chrisman confronted Ussery with evidence that the chief's maid was a heroin user, Keesal said.

The officers were fired, Keesal said, because "nobody took the time or had the nerve" to tell the Civil Service hearing panel that the officers "had arrested Chief Ussery's maid for being under the influence of heroin."

In an interview, Ussery said there was no relationship between the arrest of his one-time employee, his discussion of the arrest with Chrisman and the officers' firing. "I did not initiate that investigation," he said.

Ussery acknowledged recommending to the city manager that the officers be fired, even though other police officials had recommended suspension. He would not discuss what influenced his decision.

"I performed my duties as was appropriate for me as chief of police, and as far as I'm concerned the matter is closed. I have no further interest in it," Ussery said.

Lee T. Paterson, the city's special counsel in the case, said the Police Department had investigated Keesal's allegations last fall and found no connection between the maid's arrest and the officers' dismissals. Nor had the department found any wrongdoing by its Internal Affairs division, he said.

Keesal, a senior partner in a large Long Beach firm that specializes in maritime law, told the council he realized his direct plea was unusual. But Keesal, who the fired officers said was working without pay, said he had never seen such a miscarriage of justice.

"If this is a day in court, I hope it never happens to any of us . . . . It was just a nightmare from start to finish," he said.

Keesal said the officers had agreed not to sue the city if the council would grant a one-time unappealable review by a special police panel.

Brief Closed Session

Council members, several irritated because they were being asked to intervene publicly in a personnel matter that could lead to civil lawsuits, met briefly in closed session before refusing to set up the police panel.

"I think he's out of order here to be discussing this case. . . . It's totally out of order," Councilman Thomas Clark said of Keesal.

City Atty. John Calhoun said Keesal had a right to speak, but Calhoun recommended that council members make no comments or ask any questions. And they did not.

Chrisman and Zavala, both 32, originally appealed their dismissals to the Civil Service Commission, which found that the officers had sexually harassed women they had arrested and, in 1982, had incited a fight between a prisoner and jail security guards.

In March, 1985, Long Beach Superior Court Judge Norman W. Gordon upheld their appeal and ordered them reinstated. He said the "weight of evidence" supported the city's findings but found the penalty too severe.

Last June, a state Court of Appeal panel overturned Gordon's decision in the Zavala case, saying the judge had overstepped legal bounds in ordering reinstatement. The Chrisman case is still pending.

Keesal, who said in an interview that he had become friends with Chrisman over the last three years, asked the city to reopen the officers' case last fall after he discovered that evidence he thought important had not been considered by either the Civil Service panel or the courts.

And in an Oct. 15 letter, Keesal asked the county district attorney's office to investigate whether former Internal Affairs Sgt. Robert Gillisie had warned a defense witness not to testify. The woman, who Keesal said would have discredited a key prosecution witness, had failed to show up for the Civil Service hearings.

No Basis Found for Charge

The district attorney's Special Investigations Division concluded, however, that "there was no factual basis" for the charge against Gillisie, it said last week in a letter to Keesal.

The letter said the defense witness, identified as a prostitute, told both district attorney and police investigators last November that Gillisie had warned her not to testify if she "knew what was good for her, and if she wanted to remain in Long Beach."

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