Westminster to Indemnify Police Chiefs in Federal Discrimination Case

The Westminster City Council voted Thursday night to indemnify three former police chiefs and current chief Kevin Baker for $2.1 million in punitive damages leveled against them as part of 2011 federal case against the city.

The city is still in the process of appealing the jury’s judgment, which awarded three Latino police officers $3.5 million for being denied promotion-track assignments that were instead given to less qualified white officers.

Although the city had agreed to pay the $1.24 million in general damages awarded to the plaintiffs, under state law the City Council can vote on whether it will assume the cost of punitive damages, which are considered an additional penalty to discourage misconduct from happening again.

Steven Rothans, the attorney for Baker and former chiefs Ron Coopman, Andrew Hall and the late Mitchell Waller, argued to council members that the chiefs were acting within the scope of their job duties. Failing to indemnify them, he said, would send a message that the city did not stand behind its employees and lead to more litigation.

The $2.1 million in punitive damages is yet another financial blow to a city already drowning in legal fees and facing a $5.39 million deficit that is only expected to grow in coming years.

Westminster has drawn heavily on a reserve fund to close out its budget each year, but that fund is expected to run out by 2018.

The city also recently settled another federal lawsuit brought by the owner of a Vietnamese bikini bar involved in a 2013 FBI loan sharking sting, who alleged that a Westminster police officer harassed and threatened her on behalf of a businessman to whom she owed money.

Although the vote to indemnify the chiefs was unanimous, some council members were torn over the decision.

Councilman Tyler Diep said he was initially opposed to the city picking up the cost of the punitive damages, given that a federal jury had aimed the damages at the chiefs.

“And as hard as it is, tonight, I’m going to vote to indemnify the four of them, not because I condone what they may have done, but because we need to contain the bleeding,” Diep said. “This city cannot afford any more lawsuits.”

Councilman Sergio Contreras said the council shouldn’t choose between paying for lawsuits and city services, referring to a discussion earlier in the meeting over funding cuts to the city’s meal service program for seniors, which is provided by a vendor selected by the county.

“We’re done, we’re maxxed out [on legal fees],” said Contreras. “I don’t want us to have to talk about whether we can fund our meals on wheels program.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

  • Paul Lucas

    The Police departments need to have separate insurance for themselves to cushion the liability that puts the city in this position. The insurance industry would do alot more to stop this kind of behavior than would any council government.

    • David Zenger

      No. The issue is who should pay the premium and the deductible. It should NOT be the public. I wonder if anyone would even insure against punitive damages incurred by the police.

  • LFOldTimer

    No wonder nothing ever changes.

    • David Zenger

      The chiefs’ lawyers are worried about “the signal it would send” by the
      public not indemnifying police misbehavior. Well, what about the signal it
      sends by doing it? That signal is loud and clear: as long as you are cop
      you will NEVER be held accountable for anything you do. It also means a tacit admission that whatever they did they did for the good of the city with the city council’s tacit approval. That’s what the Westminster Council just signed up for.

      • LFOldTimer

        Sort of blows the old “higher standard” baloney sky high, eh David? If anything it’s a “lower standard”. And how exactly does that instill confidence on part of the community? Then they take offense when the people question their behavior and the amount of money we pay them and show disrespect. ha. I’ve always been taught that respect is earned. You can’t pull it from thin air. Either it’s there or it’s not. Sort of like love. And the ones who don’t have it only have themselves to blame. The citizens of Westminster should shun their Council and petition for recalls.

  • David Zenger

    Ridiculous. Why is the public on the hook for the personal bad behavior of city employees? Those chiefs had no civic duty to racially discriminate, right?