Court of Appeal Reverses $4 Million Verdict Awarded to Officers Benched for “Political Reasons” After Shooting

In 2010, Officers Diego and Corrales were involved in an officer-involved-shooting, which resulted in the death of Steve Washington, a 27-year-old African American male who was autistic.

The Department found that both Officers’ decisions to exhibit their firearms and to use lethal force were “in policy” because, “although the tactics were bad, which … led up to the shooting, they were in a position where it was life or death in their minds.”  The Civilian Police Commission disagreed and concluded both officers’ uses of force were out of policy.  Based on this finding, the Officers’ Captain recommended an official reprimand for Diego and a conditional reprimand for Corrales, which are among the lowest forms of punishment within the LAPD.  Chief Beck concurred, but also decided not to send the Officers back into the field.

After the incident, the Officers were assigned to various jobs that did not require a field certification.  They continued to receive their full salary, less a 2 or 3 percent “patrol bonus.”  They were both assigned for a time to the Community Relations Office, where they worked with youth programs.  They continued to carry their weapons, but they were not returned to the field for patrol duties.

Two years later, the Officers met with the Deputy Chief of LAPD to discuss why they had still not been returned to the field.  The Deputy Chief said that they were still benched because “it was political and we had shot an unarmed male Black.”

The Officers sued, claiming they were unfairly kept out of the field (colloquially described as “benched”) for five years after the incident, resulting in lost promotional opportunities and off-duty work, because of their race.  They also said they were retaliated against because they had filed a lawsuit.

The Officers argued they suffered disparate treatment because they are Hispanic and the victim was African-American. They relied on evidence of another shooting incident involving a Caucasian officer and a Hispanic victim, after which the officer involved was returned to field duty.  Thus, the officers’ theory was that the jury could and should consider whether the Officers were treated differently, not simply because of their race, but because of the race of their victim.

The jury found in favor of the Officers and awarded damages of almost $4 million. In a rare reversal of a jury’s decision, the Court of Appeal reversed the jury verdict, finding that the officers’ legal theory was flawed.

The Court of Appeal ruled that “in deciding whether to return the Officers to the field, the City could assess the political implications of doing so without violating employment discrimination laws.”  Those laws would not permit the City to treat the Officers differently because they are Hispanic, but they did not prohibit the City from assessing the risk management implications of returning officers of any race to the streets of Los Angeles who had been involved in a fatal shooting of an innocent, unarmed and autistic African-American man.  The Officers claimed that African-American officers would have been treated differently, but they did not introduce any competent evidence to support that claim.

The Court of Appeal also found that the Officers did not provide evidence sufficient to support their claim that the City retaliated against them for filing the lawsuit because nothing about their status changed after they filed their complaint. Nor did they provide any evidence that the lawsuit was a motivating factor in the decision to continue withholding their field certification.

Returning officers to the field after a highly publicized shooting can be difficult.  This Court of Appeal decision acknowledges the political ramifications of these decisions, and states that “[a]n employment decision based on political concerns, even if otherwise unfair, [is not grounds for a lawsuit] so long as the employee’s race or other protected status is not a substantial factor in the decision….”

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