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The LAFD on trial

If the Tennie Pierce case goes to court, it could be good for the city -- but not because it will be cheap.

November 30, 2006

TENNIE PIERCE HAS already had his day at City Hall, testifying before the City Council about harassment and discrimination in the Los Angeles Fire Department. Now it appears that he will get his day in court -- and it will be the Fire Department that is on trial.

Pierce is the black former firefighter who was fed dog food by his colleagues and sued the city, agreeing to a $2.7-million settlement that was accepted by the city attorney and approved by the City Council. But last week Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed that settlement, and on Wednesday, after two days of contentious debate, the council failed to override his veto. So it looks as if the case is headed for trial.

That's good -- but not necessarily because the mayor's decision was the right one or because the incident is defensible. It's because, win or lose, the city will now get a chance to hear just how dysfunctional its Fire Department is.

A trial will air the damaging evidence that led the city attorney to recommend a settlement. And for the LAFD, a department that for decades has been plagued with racism, sexism and other types of harassment, that evidence could be embarrassing. If firefighters think sneaking dog food into someone's dinner and watching him eat is just a bad joke, what's a good one? How much dehumanizing behavior is someone supposed to endure in the name of camaraderie?

In opting to send the case to trial, the council members who sustained the mayor's veto said they did not see the dog food incident as racial harassment. Or rather, they agreed it was harassment, but they didn't see it as racial. This is a point that testimony about the incident, about the work environment at station houses and the department's subsequent investigation may clarify.

Financially, much is at stake. In similar cases, the city has wound up paying large awards to plaintiffs. In 2004, veteran police officer Richard Nagatoshi won $4.1 million after suing for racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation. In that case, as in this one, the city decided to fight instead of settle, and a jury unanimously sided with Nagatoshi.

There is also a chance that the city could prevail. But what a shame that it now must spend time and money to mount a defense of adolescent boorishness and departmental dysfunction -- racial or otherwise.

Whatever happens, the real victory for the city won't come until the Fire Department changes its ways. Scathing audits have outlined the LAFD's erratic disciplinary policies, poor leadership and hostile work environment, yet those reports have failed to dislodge the frat-boy culture. Maybe a public airing of its dirty laundry will.

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