Latino police officers awarded $3.5 million in Westminster discrimination case

A federal jury Thursday awarded $3.5 million to three Latino Westminster Police Department officers in their discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the city of Westminster and the current and three former city police chiefs.  An attorney for the city and chiefs said the ruling may be appealed. (From left to right: Brian Perez, Jose Flores, Ryan Reyes).
A federal jury Thursday awarded $3.5 million to three Latino Westminster Police Department officers in their discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the city of Westminster and the current and three former city police chiefs. An attorney for the city and chiefs said the ruling may be appealed. (From left to right: Brian Perez, Jose Flores, Ryan Reyes). Courtesy MALDEF

A federal jury Thursday awarded $3.5 million to three Westminster police officers who said they were denied promotions because they were Latino.

Officers Jose Flores, Ryan Reyes and Brian Perez filed a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the city of Westminster and a current and three former police chiefs. 

The jury deliberated four days before ruling that the three police officers were discriminated or retaliated against by the city of Westminster, police chief Kevin Baker and former police chiefs Mitchell Waller, Andy Hall and Ron Coopman.  

"We were able to show a trial, a result of many actions, why Latino officers were denied promotions repeatedly and given less prestigious assignments," said attorney Martha Gomez, one of three attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Funds (MALDEF) firm that represented the three officers.

The jurors ruled the city of Westminster should pay $260,000 in damages for retaliation and that Baker and the former chiefs should pay the rest.

But Melanie Poturica, an attorney who represented the city and the chiefs, said the jury found no indication that the police department showed any pattern of discrimination against Latino officers.

"The city did not discriminate against these officers," said Poturica. "So what is perplexing is given that the city did not discriminate, how did the jury find that the chiefs had discriminated?"

Poturica said the verdict form was "confusing" and emailed the 17-page document to KPCC Friday (the check marks and dollar figures on the form are Poturica's).

Document: 17-page verdict form

But Gomez said the jury does not have to find a pattern of discrimination. 

"It just has to find discrimination," said Gomez. "We used a lot of direct evidence, including instances where our clients were called derogatory or racist names. All of the evidence together made the jury see the puzzle."

The jury found that the city of Westminster and a police chief retaliated after the officers filed the complaints. 

Poturica disagreed with that verdict. She also took some solace in one part of the jury ruling.

"The jury found that the city did not discriminate under both state law and federal law, so there is some vindication for the city from that standpoint," said Poturica. 

But whether the officers see any money will likely be determined by more court action. Poturica said Friday the city may file a motion for a new trial or appeal. 

"We will be consulting with the city on post-trial motions which would occur with the same federal court with [U.S. District] Judge David Carter," said Poturica. 

'Mall duty' a road to nowhere

The lawsuit was filed in 2011. It claimed the Westminster Police Department denied the officers special assignments such as SWAT or detective duties, instead assigning them to "mall duty." 

"The mall is a one-year assignment, you're supervising the Westminster mall, you don't get to do huge investigations or other prestige assignments," said Gomez. "If you look at the pattern, Latinos end up at the mall. Young white officers end up as detectives or in other prestigious detective assignments."        

Gomez said mall duty is considered a "road to nowhere." The three officers had worked for the police department for at least 10 years.

The lawsuit also claimed the officers' bids for promotion were rejected while less experienced or qualified officers received promotions.

Gomez said "white officers were on the fast track to promotions, time and time again," while the three Latino officers were denied advancement.

"If you can't provide a logical reason for why that is, you can make an inference, 'Wait a minute, what's the real difference here' and that's where race comes in," said Gomez.  

'Whites Only'

The officers also claimed there were signs of discrimination in the department, including a literal one that said "Whites Only" that was posted in the police station nearly two decades ago and later removed.

"The same individuals who posted that sign or were responsible for keeping that sign up, later became supervisors for my clients (Flores, Reyes and Perez)," said Gomez. 

But Poturica said that sign was removed in 1996, before the three officers started working for the Westminster Police Department. 

"It [the sign] predates not only the officers (Flores, Reyes and Perez) but none of the (police) chiefs were chiefs at the time," said Poturica. She said that one of the defendants, former chief Hall, administered discipline "to the person who put the sign up as well as the sergeant who didn't take the sign down."  

Flores and Reyes also contended that they were disciplined in retaliation for filing state discrimination complaints and the jury agreed.

Reyes was reprimanded for being slow to file paperwork and Flores was reprimanded for failing to respond to a domestic violence call.

"They were following the practices, the way they were trained and then, after they filed the discrimination complaints, there were multiple internal affairs investigations against the officers," said Gomez. "And the jury saw right through that."

Gomez said the three officers will continue to work for the Westminster Police Department. 

"They're going to be able to go to work and focus on police work without the fear," said Gomez. The jury ruling "gives them that release of being able to say 'Yes, I knew this was happening. Yes, I can go back with dignity. I can go back with my head held high,' and we hope it's going to make the department change."    

Latinos now comprise about 15 percent of the approximately 90-member police force.

With contributions by KPCC Wire Services

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