A jury awarded former Inglewood Police Officer Jeremy Morse and partner Officer Bijan Darvish $2.4 million Tuesday, finding that they were unfairly disciplined after the videotaped beating of a black teenager more than two years ago.
The officers had claimed in their lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court that because they were white, they were punished more harshly than a black officer who struck the suspect with a flashlight but was not videotaped.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Inglewood police -- An article in Wednesday's California section about a $2.4-million jury award to an Inglewood police officer and a former officer said the case involved a driver stopped because he had a suspended license. Police initially questioned the driver because they saw expired registration tags on his car. After questioning, the driver was arrested on suspicion of driving with a suspended license.
Morse and Darvish accused the city of racial discrimination.
"They feel vindicated," said the officers' attorney, Gregory Smith. "They've never talked about their side of the story and they've been subjected to a lot of abuse. Finally, their story came out."
Morse was awarded $1.6 million and Darvish was awarded $811,000.
The awards stem from the July 6, 2002, arrest of Donovan Jackson, 16, at an Inglewood gas station. A passenger in a car stopped because the driver had a suspended license, Jackson had a confrontation with officers.
Morse was videotaped slamming him against the trunk of a police cruiser and punching him in the face. The incident made national headlines, and Morse was fired and twice tried on felony charges. Juries in both trials deadlocked, and prosecutors eventually dismissed the case.
Darvish, who still works at the Police Department, was acquitted of filing a false police report concerning the incident, but received a 10-day suspension from the department.
In their lawsuit, the officers charged that after the video images were shown on television, "a form of hysteria swept the mayor's office and the chief of police." Although an internal police investigation deemed that the amount of force used in the arrest was reasonable, "decisions were immediately made to terminate Morse because he had been caught on video perfecting an arrest of an African American and had used force."
The officers claimed that a third officer, Willie Crook, was treated differently because he was black.
"Although Officer Crook was found to have used force by striking Jackson with his flashlight, and failed to report the use of force, he was simply suspended for four days without pay," the lawsuit said.
Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn called the verdict outrageous.
"How do you give a man who was suspended for only 10 days more than $800,000? Morse was fired, but $1.6 million?" Dorn said.
The mayor also took issue with the claim that Crook, the black officer, got off lightly.
"He lost his job as a police officer, and he was reassigned as a civilian jailer."
Paul Coble, the attorney who represented the city in the lawsuit, said he was surprised by the verdict and thought the jury may have misinterpreted the lawsuit.
"The jury took its job seriously, but I think the jurors missed the mark," Coble said. "The suit was solely about racial discrimination. But when I talked to two jurors after the verdict, they said they were worried about whether the disciplinary action was fair. The point was whether the discipline was discriminatory, whether it was racially motivated."
Officers in excessive-force cases are often reinstated after their dismissal, according to legal experts. However, officers rarely countersue on the basis of racial discrimination, said Los Angeles civil rights attorney Connie Rice.
"You don't see most white police officers complaining about racial discrimination," Rice said. "That's uncommon."
Morse's attorney said the officer now has the option of returning to the Police Department.
"He can get his job back, and he's going to deliberate on it," Smith said. "It was the love of his life. That's all he ever wanted to do, be a police officer."
But the verdict doesn't end the officers' legal struggles.
A federal civil rights lawsuit has been filed against both men.