Citing racial discrimination, a Superior Court jury Friday unanimously awarded $5.34 million--one of the largest verdicts of its kind--to the first African American on the Los Angeles Police Department's elite bomb squad.
During the two-week trial, John Francois, 32, who served 13 months on the squad, described incidents of harassment, including one before Halloween in 1996 in which a supervisor suggested Francois put on a suit and tie and come dressed as a "white man."
After the verdict was announced, Francois said, "It means people aren't allowed to dash your dreams against the rocks and walk away scot-free."
An LAPD spokesman declined to comment.
City attorney's office spokesman Mike Qualls said the city would file a motion to challenge the award and would review other legal options.
"Obviously, we are disappointed and believe the dollar amount of the award is excessive."
But Francois' lawyer, Matthew McNicholas, said the jury had viewed "overwhelming evidence." McNicholas said his client had been subjected to a "pervasive attitude of discrimination and harassment that is unacceptable in the workplace or any place."
Before choosing a law enforcement career, Francois, who grew up in Culver City, enlisted in the Air Force, where he was trained to search for explosives with dogs. At one point, he was assigned to search Air Force One, the president's aircraft.
Francois joined the LAPD in 1990. Six years later he became a member of the newly formed, 14-member bomb squad, a coveted position. Then, as now, the squad consisted mostly of white men, McNicholas said.
Over 13 months, Francois was repeatedly subjected to harassment because of his race, McNicholas said. Sometimes, it was verbal, he said, as when a supervisor called Francois "boy." At times, it was financial; he did not receive standby pay for being on call, though the other bomb squad members did, his attorney said.
Francois also described the following:
He was given a flak vest that didn't fit and never received a new one despite his request. When he signed up for a conference, his name was crossed off the list. When he signed up again, his name was cut off the list. Once, at the bomb range, explosives were detonated before Francois had reached the safety of a bunker; he was the only bomb squad member who wasn't protected by a bunker wall.
Francois left the squad in June 1997, taking a leave of absence for stress. That year, he underwent surgery in which a brain tumor was removed. His neurosurgeon cleared him to return to work in January 1998, but the bomb squad wouldn't allow it, saying he should undergo the city's psychological exam.
"To have that [job] taken away from me was a travesty," Francois said. "My main goal was to become a police officer in the city I grew up in; to be on the bomb squad was to be able to live a dream."
Frustrated, he took and passed the exam to become a detective, a position that would have been a promotion. After being informed that his promotion had been placed on hold, Francois was assigned to work on homicides in the South Bureau.
Last year, Francois left the LAPD, saying that he faced a hostile environment, harassment and discrimination. During his stint with LAPD, he received numerous commendations and no complaints from citizens or officers, McNicholas said.
Francois, who now lives in Lancaster, has applied to become a firefighter in Long Beach. After going through the selection process, he received top grades, his lawyer said. He currently awaits a position.
"I'm just grateful that the jury vindicated me," Francois said. "That made it worth it."