Patrick McGreevy, Times Staff Writer
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
The city of Los Angeles is suing 53 former LAPD officers for $1.6 million, alleging that they broke their employment contracts by leaving within five years of graduating from the Police Academy.
Thirty of the officers have hired an attorney to argue that federal and state labor laws prohibit the recovery of training costs.
The LAPD has required recruits to sign five-year contracts since a 1996 investigation found that some were quitting as early as the day after graduation to work for other departments that did not pay for training. Police Academy training takes seven months and costs $60,000 per officer, although the lawsuits seek amounts that have been prorated based on how long each officer served.
The city's position is being criticized as unjust by the leaders of other Southern California police departments who have hired the former LAPD officers.
"It's indentured servitude," said Frank Wills, the police chief in West Covina. "I don't think it's fair."
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and other city leaders say they are just trying to protect the investment made by taxpayers. Officials also say they have offered to negotiate a settlement that would allow departed officers to repay the city over a number of years.
"We think it's important that the city gets paid," said Contessa Mankiewicz, a spokeswoman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. "But we don't want to create a financial burden for officers. We are very aware that people don't always have that kind of money sitting around."
The City Council adopted the contract requirement after it was disclosed that academy graduate Ceasar Escobedo took a job with the San Marino Police Department the day he graduated. The No. 1-ranked recruit in 1995, Sean Frank, departed for the Glendale Police Department after eight months in the LAPD's Pacific Division.
But West Covina Chief Wills said the LAPD "conveniently ignored the fact that they took more than one officer from San Marino. They stole officers from all over Southern California. Now there is a role reversal, which is of their own doing."
Wills said the city attorney in West Covina has expressed interest in going to court to challenge the LAPD contracts. "The legality of this is questionable," he said.
As of this week, the city had 34 lawsuits pending against officers and 19 others in the process of being filed.
In one suit, the city is going after an officer who quit the LAPD 10 months after graduating to work for the city of Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County. City officials say that officer owes them $51,000 in training costs.
Three of the officers being sued had been with the LAPD less than one year, and eight quit in less than two years, according to Mankiewicz.
Bratton said he supported recovering the costs from the officers, even though he understood why some of them did not stay with the LAPD.
"They join us and get married and have a few kids, and after a few years they get tired of doing the 70-mile each-way commute and end up taking a job in a local police department," Bratton said.
Under the 10-year-old requirement, applicants must sign a contract agreeing to repay part or all of the cost of training if they leave before completing five years on the force. Exemptions are made for officers who leave because of extenuating circumstances.
Officer Andrew Bjelland, 33, was presented with a bill for $35,000 when he left the LAPD after 2 1/2 years for the Chino Police Department.
Bjelland said he did not like what the commute from Fontana was doing to his family: "I couldn't succeed as a father and husband with the long commute to Los Angeles."
Bjelland said police recruit training can be had for $5,000 elsewhere.
Officers say less expensive training is available at local schools, including Rio Hondo College.
"I don't think the LAPD bill is reflective of the true cost," he said. "It's more of a punitive measure to keep us employed by the city."
Anthony Alvo, the first former LAPD officer to be sued, agrees.
Alvo had just left the Marine Corps when he arranged to enter the Police Academy.
He said the contract was put in front of him along with a lot of other papers, and he was told to sign it.
"You really didn't have an option," he said.
Alvo, 29, said he quit in 2000 after less than two years on the job to join the Chino Police Department, where working conditions were better.
In deciding to transfer, he cited frustration over what he saw as an overly harsh disciplinary system imposed by then-LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, now a Los Angeles councilman, and concern over the department and its officers being tainted by the Rampart corruption scandal.
Despite serving a two-year stint in Iraq since leaving the LAPD and suffering a knee injury, Alvo is being sued for $34,000.
"If the LAPD was as good a place to work as it claims, they should have no problem retaining officers," Alvo said.
Alvo and 29 other former LAPD officers have hired Northern California attorney Jon Webster, a former policeman, who is going to court Thursday to ask that the large number of officers be certified in a class action countersuit against Los Angeles.
Webster said he believed a precedent had been set by at least five other cases in which city work contracts where struck down.
"In every instance it was considered to be an unlawful kickback to the employer," Webster said. "It is unlawful under the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act for any employer to ask for money back from an employee."
Webster said the Police Department's cases would be hurt by the city's insistence that recruits go through the Police Academy because other cities allow officers to attend less expensive training programs.
"The bottom line is employees are free to come and go as they please," Webster said.
LAPD suing 53 former officers