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Janitors' Suit Settled : Council to Pay $2.35 Million for Union Members Beaten by Police

September 04, 1993|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

In one of the largest settlements of its kind, the Los Angeles City Council agreed Friday to pay $2.35 million to the Service Employees International Union over a bloody confrontation three years ago between union janitors and Los Angeles police officers.

The settlement stems from a lawsuit brought by the union and 145 janitors against the city, former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and the Police Department over the 1990 Century City clash, one of Los Angeles' most violent police confrontations in recent years. The suit alleges that about 60 janitors and their supporters required medical treatment and another 85 were either hit or arrested in the melee.

"We are trying to make whole a lot of people who were trying to exercise their 1st Amendment rights," said Los Angeles Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. "The police response was wrong. It was a plain and simple overreaction," Yaroslavsky said.

An LAPD spokesman declined comment on the settlement.

Don Vincent, deputy city attorney and supervisor of the police litigation unit, said he believed it was in the city's economic interest to settle the suit. "We thought we could win a lot of the cases," he said. "But some of these cases were indefensible."

One problem for the city, Vincent said, was a finding by the Los Angeles Police Commission that the LAPD was not justified in stopping or interfering with the janitors' march. The city settled the suit without any admission of guilt.

"This is a very, very substantial settlement," said the union's attorney, Barrett S. Litt. He said that although payments to the 145 janitors would be apportioned in accordance with their injuries, the median payout would be about $10,000 after legal fees, more than most make in wages each year.

The lawsuit arose after 400 members of the union's Justice for Janitors campaign and their supporters marched from Beverly Hills to Century City on June 15, 1990, to picket buildings where the janitors had gone on strike demanding higher wages.

As the marchers approached Century City, they encountered 150 riot-equipped police officers, some of whom had formed a line blocking their path. The police became concerned over claims by a union speaker at the beginning of the march that the janitors would "not be stopped" by the police, and noted that a soda can had been hurled at a Beverly Hills police officer during the march, Vincent said.

The LAPD's commanding officer said he believed the marchers would be a threat to people in Century City and to the buildings there. One officer gave the order for the marchers to disperse within 30 seconds, which they did not, Vincent said.

"The union was entitled to march. There was no legal basis for stopping it. They were doing nothing improper," said Litt.

The lawsuit contends that the union had made provisions for the march with the LAPD's labor detail and with the mayor's office. After a brief standoff, union members locked arms and walked toward the police. The two sides disagree as to whether the union members tried to break through the police line. Litt said the announcement to disperse was in English, which most of the Latino janitors did not understand. According to Litt, police began clubbing janitors with their batons.

The city later said it believed the march constituted unlawful assembly and that the LAPD's actions were a reasonable use of force.

The union lawsuit says among those clubbed was a young mother holding her baby. Some janitors were chased into a parking garage where they were beaten, Yaroslavsky said.

Among the plaintiffs was Ana Veliz, a janitor who was in her third month of pregnancy and suffered a miscarriage after being clubbed with a nightstick. Others suffered broken bones and internal bleeding.

About 200 jubilant janitors awaited the City Council's unanimous vote on the steps of City Hall, banging drums, clenching their fists and singing union songs.

Joel Vasquez, one of the janitors who says he was beaten, addressed the crowd. "The people who are supposed to protect us didn't. They beat us," said Vasquez, who said he was clubbed four times, leaving his shoulder swollen and bruised. Vasquez, who works in a building in Century City, says he has seen his wages increase to $6.47 per hour from $4.25 since workers in his building unionized.

"It is so satisfying to feel my voice for justice has been heard," he added.

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