By Joel Rubin and Catherine Saillant
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday agreed to pay nearly $6 million to a group of police officers who accused their superiors of imposing a secret traffic ticket quota system on the Westside.
The settlement, approved unanimously, brings to more than $10 million the amount of taxpayer money spent on payouts and legal fees from the ticket quota cases. But that number could grow because one more officer's case is still pending.
The ticket controversy has been a black eye for the Los Angeles Police Department. Ticket quotas are against state law. After the officers' allegations were made public, LAPD officials met with police union representatives and signed a letter emphasizing that the department prohibits quotas.
Dennis Zine, a former City Council member and career LAPD motorcycle officer, said the settlement calls into question LAPD's traffic division management. Zine is also incensed that Capt. Nancy Lauer, who ran the LAPD's West Traffic Division at the time of the allegations, has been promoted.
"This whole thing clearly shows me that management did not do what they needed to do, and taxpayers are footing the bill for that,'' said Zine, who lost a bid for city controller in this year's municipal elections.
Matthew McNicholas, one of the officers' attorneys, called the action "a very fair" resolution. "These guys had targets put on their backs and nothing happens to this captain. In fact, she's since been promoted. The message that sends from the department is, 'We do what we want, how we want.'"
The $5.9-million settlement approved Tuesday resolves two lawsuits filed in 2010 by 11 LAPD officers assigned to a motorcycle unit. In the lawsuits, the officers detailed what they said were strict demands for tickets placed on them by Lauer.
The lawsuits alleged that Lauer, who ran the division starting in 2006, required officers to write at least 18 traffic tickets each shift and demanded that 80% of the citations be for major violations.
Officers who failed to meet the minimums or raised concerns about them were reprimanded, denied overtime assignments, given undesirable work schedules and subjected to other forms of harassment, according to the lawsuits. In a few instances, Lauer attempted to kick officers out of the motorcycle unit, the lawsuits said.
In a statement, Chief Charlie Beck defended the division's practices. Management set "goals" to reduce traffic violations that resulted in serious injury and death, Beck said, but the jury in a separate 2009 case interpreted that as quotas, he said.
"We do not agree with the original jury's findings," he said. "Unfortunately the large jury award in the earlier court case made settling this case the most prudent business decision."
Lauer, who currently runs one of the department's patrol divisions, said she instructed officers to ticket illegal driving but did not set quotas.
The focus at West Traffic Division "was always on reducing traffic collisions and saving lives," Lauer said. "We saw too many innocent people die at the hands of speeding and other dangerous drivers."
The payment is the latest fallout from Lauer's time at the helm of the traffic division, which patrols for traffic violations throughout the city's Westside.
In 2009, two other motorcycle officers, Howard Chan and David Benioff, made similar allegations against Lauer and members of her command staff in a separate lawsuit.
In testimony, Lauer denied she had enforced a quota, saying there was "apparently some confusion" among officers, records show. If a certain number of tickets had been mentioned, it would have been used as "a goal" for officers instead of a quota, she said.
Similarly, lawyers for the city tried to persuade jurors that the department had simply established broad goals rather than specific quotas, and that supervisors were trying to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities.
The officers testified that they were ordered to scrap regular patrol assignments and sent instead to specific streets where they were more likely to catch motorists committing moving violations. Though not illegal, being sent to those so-called orchards or cherry patches, they said, reinforced the belief that hitting ticket targets trumped other aspects of the job.
The jury sided with the officers, awarding them $2 million. The verdict was a particularly sharp rebuke because lawyers for then-City Atty. Carman Trutanich had rejected an earlier offer to settle the case for $500,000, according to officials from the union that represents rank-and-file officers.
In August 2011 — after the current group of 11 officers, along with another officer who filed his own lawsuit — followed with their allegations of retaliation, Trutanich outsourced the legal work in the cases to a private law firm, Albright, Yee & Schmit.
The firm billed the city nearly $2.4 million for its work on the cases, according to figures provided by the city attorney's office.
The officers appeared to have a strong case. A lieutenant who monitored workplace issues for the department testified in a deposition that after looking into the officers' allegations, he concluded that Lauer had, in fact, imposed a ticket quota, court records show.
When Trutanich was unseated as city attorney by Mike Feuer this year, Feuer changed course, instructing his assistants to try to settle with the officers, according to city records and interviews.
The settlement is the latest in a long string of seven-figure payments the city has made to resolve police officers' reports of retaliation, discrimination and other workplace misconduct. In the last several years more than a dozen other officers have won million-dollar-plus jury verdicts or settlements from the city.
An earlier Times review of city records from 2005 to 2010 found police officers filed more than 250 lawsuits against the department over workplace issues. The city paid more than $18 million in about 45 of those cases and had appealed other verdicts worth several million dollars more, the records showed.
As the losses continued to pile up, the department came under increasing scrutiny for its apparent inability to identify workplace problems and resolve them before they blew up into legal action. With the Police Commission, which oversees the department, demanding improvements, LAPD officials have made changes and have said that the number of lawsuits brought by officers has dropped. Commission members, however, have said it is too early to conclude that the problem is under control.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 Los Angeles Times