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 [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.