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Police Win Bias Suit Against County

Courts: Jury rules the 500-plus public safety officers, who are mostly minorities, were discriminated against. Appeal seen as likely.

June 07, 2002|HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Superior Court jury Thursday unanimously decided that Los Angeles County has racially discriminated against members of its Office of Public Safety, a 500-plus member police force that patrols county hospitals, parks and other facilities.

Lawyers for the force, which is about 80% black, Latino and Asian, will ask for more than $100 million in salary increases, back pay and pension funds during the next phase of the trial.

The officers argued that the county has operated a law-enforcement caste system in which public safety officers were paid 40% less than sheriff's deputies and were denied pensions equivalent to that of deputies. The county officers risk their lives and health and have even died performing their jobs but have historically been ridiculed as "wannabe sheriffs" and treated like security guards, plaintiffs said.

They pointed out that county lifeguards get pension benefits similar to those of police or firefighters, but county police are among the few peace officers who do not.

Pending a judge's ruling on the financial damages--and a likely appeal--the civil verdict caps a nearly century-long dysfunctional relationship between county government and its largely anonymous police force, which was created in 1917 as a group of night watchmen. Over the years, the force evolved from armed security guards to unarmed security officers and finally to full-fledged peace officers. The force was consolidated in 1997 with the merger of officers who worked in county hospitals, parks and government buildings.

During a two-week trial, plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the officers have battled street gangs, restrained often-violent psychiatric patients and lost six officers in the line of duty, but they have been compensated more like security guards than police. The lawyers told the jury that the pay policy was discriminatory.

"I think the jury, a cross-section of people from Los Angeles County, saw very clearly the institutional racism," said Jack O'Donnell, an attorney for the public safety officers. "I thank God the jury has taken the county to task."

An attorney for the county countered that emotional jurors returned a flat-out-wrong verdict.

"I understand the emotional connection that they felt for the officers, and that they felt they should be paid more, but the verdict reinforces that they weren't deciding on the basis of instructions, but on emotions," attorney Calvin House said. "I'm convinced the county did not discriminate on the basis of race."

O'Donnell said the county could have saved at least $35 million in potential penalties had it settled the case rather than going to trial.

"We gave the county opportunities to settle and set the record straight about these officers, and they never made the effort," he said.

But House and county officials said the officers were asking for too much, especially given the county's financial straits.

"They've been saying they want to be paid the same as deputies. That by itself is a huge economic undertaking," House said. "With the current state of the budget, it would have been hard to settle, given the numbers."

An aide to Supervisor Mike Antonovich defended the county's handling of salary negotiations.

"The Office of Public Safety does not patrol the same kind of area that sheriff's deputies do," Jean Huston said. "Patrolling a county park is different from patrolling South-Central Los Angeles."

House said the county will ask Superior Court Judge Victor Chavez to throw out the verdict, and failing that, will probably appeal.

O'Donnell said county police officers patrol some of the tensest, most volatile places in Los Angeles. At County-USC Medical Center, officers respond to violent psychiatric patients more than a dozen times a day, O'Donnell said. Rival gang members sometimes clash in the hospital, officers say.

"The county wants their cake and to eat it too. They knew they needed police officers to do these jobs, they just didn't want to pay cop wages and benefits," said Patricia Bellasalma, another attorney for the officers. "If they could have gotten away with having security guards, they would have."

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Times staff writer Garrett Therolf contributed to this report.

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