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LAPD officer wins $1.2-million verdict in racial harassment suit

March 26, 2013|By Joel Rubin
  • Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck is under pressure to improve the way the department handles claims of harassment by officers.
Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck is under pressure to improve the way… (Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images )

A jury Tuesday ordered the city of Los Angeles to pay $1.2 million to a black police officer who alleged he was the butt of vulgar racial harassment by a white supervisor and other officers.

In his lawsuit, Earl Wright, who joined the department in 1989, accused the supervisor, Sgt. Peter Foster, and a handful of officers of carrying out racial pranks and making comments that left him "embarrassed and humiliated."

In one instance, the lawsuit claimed, Wright asked Foster for permission to leave work early and Foster, who is white, responded, "Why? You gotta go pick watermelons?" 

In another incident, Foster summoned Wright and his partner back in to the station from the field to celebrate Wright's 20th year of service as an LAPD officer. With officers laughing and applauding, the lawsuit claimed, Foster then presented Wright with a cake that was topped with a piece of fried chicken and a slice of watermelon.

Wright said in court documents that supervisors throughout the Central Division station where he and Foster worked, including the captain who ran the division at the time, were aware of the crass behavior and did not stop it.

"They didn't do anything to protect Earl," said his attorney, Greg Smith.

During the four-day trial, however, lawyers for the city tried to portray Wright not as a victim, but as a willing participant.

For example, Officer Randall McCain, who is black, testified that it was he, not Foster, who bought and presented the cake to Wright.

In an interview, McCain reiterated what he said at the trial -- that Wright laughed when he saw the cake, cut himself a slice, and ate the chicken topping.

He and Wright, McCain said, were part of a group of officers at Central Division who routinely traded crude racial text messages and comments.

"I have known Earl Wright for 15, 16 years; we worked together for the past five. And Earl Wright has joked, pulled pranks and talked about other races in a joking way just like the rest of us," McCain said. "Everything this guy is claiming was done to him, he did himself. He lied about the way he was feeling."

In a prepared response to the verdict, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck echoed those allegations, saying he was "truly saddened by the events that occurred in that work environment perpetrated by a few individuals, including Officer Wright."

The testimony by officers during the trial showed Wright "willingly participated in some of the inappropriate behavior and banter," said Lt. Andy Neiman, a spokesman for the department.

The jury, however, seemed to reject that notion.

In reaching their decision, jurors noted in written records that the LAPD's procedures for handling harassment claims such as Wright's were "ineffective," Smith said.

Beck said in his written response that the department had learned lessons from the Wright case and "has used its experience from the allegations revealed in this case to more aggressively monitor workplace environments and investigate allegations of misconduct."

Indeed, cop-on-cop accusations of harassment, retaliation and discrimination have bedeviled the LAPD for years, and cost tax payers tens of millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements.

Wright's verdict is the second seven-figure payout for the city in as many weeks. Last week, the City Council voted to approve a $1.25-million settlement with two lesbian officers who claimed they had been subjected to sexual harassment by their supervisor.

With Wright, Smith said, lawyers for the city offered only $10,000 to settle the claims. Smith said he responded by telling city lawyers that his client would drop his lawsuit for $400,000, but was rebuffed.

Following an internal investigation into Wright's claims, the department reassigned and suspended McCain and other officers. An unnamed supervisor -- presumably Foster -- was sent to a disciplinary hearing, after which he was fired, Beck said.

Reached by telephone, Foster declined to comment.

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Twitter: @joelrubin

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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