Five before Midnight

This site is dedicated to the continuous oversight of the Riverside(CA)Police Department, which was formerly overseen by the state attorney general. This blog will hopefully play that role being free of City Hall's micromanagement.
"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget." "You will though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." --Lewis Carroll


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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sutton: The City Strikes Back

On Oct. 20, a Riverside County Superior Court jury awarded Officer Roger Sutton with a $1.64 million verdict, after finding that the Riverside Police Department had engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination and retaliation against him.

Only two months later, the city of Riverside struck back by filing a motion in court, asking for a new trial.

In response, presiding Commissioner Joan F. Burgess denied the city's motion and said that while she believed that the city's allegation that the verdict was excessive was its strongest argument in its motion, the jury's award was still within the legal boundaries of what was reasonable.

"I think it's high," Burgess said, "It doesn't shock my sense of justice."

Attorney Eugene Ramirez, who represented the police department, had argued in his motion and in court that the verdict, particularly the $1.5 million set aside for noneconomic damages, was excessive.

In addition to noneconomic damages, the jury had awarded $140,945 in economic damages. The jury's decision had been unaminous on the issues of racial discrimination and retaliation, but was split 10-2 on whether or not Sutton was harassed by other officers on the basis of his race. The jury also split 11-1 on the size of the noneconomic damages, according to court records. The jury reached its verdict after hearing evidence from dozens of witnesses in a trial which lasted over a month.

Ramirez said that he believed that the the fact that the noneconomic damages were more than 10 times higher than the economic damages meant that the jury used emotion in making its decision. He also criticized comments made by one juror to a Press Enterprise reporter that the verdict was meant to send a message to the city, as indication that the damages awarded were punitive in nature.

"You experience a verdict that is so out of whack you have to sit down and ask yourself, why," Ramirez said.

Burgess strongly disagreed.

"It was on the high side, "Burgess said, " I just can't say it was done in a punitive nature."

Burgess also said that the jury's award was probably greater than she would have awarded if she were a tryer of the facts, but she repeatedly said that it was not offensive to a person's sense of justice, which was the legal standard.

Ramirez still insisted that the jury had erred in its decision.

He said that he had reviewed all the trial transcripts but still could not find a reason why the jury made the decision it did against his client.

"Look at all this evidence and you wonder, what was this jury thinking," Ramirez said, "Was it emotional or was it prejudice against the city?"

Both Burgess and Sutton's attorneys provided some explanations as to why the jury had reached its decision.

Attorney Samantha Goodman who represented Sutton said that there was no evidence that the size of the verdict was "out of bounds" based on what was at trial. She added that the emotional damages suffered by Sutton were much more severe than the economic damages. The jury saw that and made its decision, accordingly.

"Their argument is that it is too high and they can't point to any reason, " Goodman said.

Sutton's other attorney, Scott Silverman, said that the jury foreman had said in a Press Enterprise news article that Sutton's attorneys had made a good case presenting the disparate treatment Sutton had received in comparison to White officers under similar circumstances.

In 1999, Sutton was removed from the canine division after his dog, Bor, had accidently bitten another officer, causing injuries which led to her retirement. During the trial, his attorneys had presented evidence through witness testimony that White canine officers including Tim Bacon, Steve Sdringola, Ed Blevins and Dave Taylor had handled dogs who were also involved in accidental bites, but none of these men were disciplined by the department. In fact, several of them were promoted at least once after their dogs were involved in accidental bites, including Bacon, who was involved in an incident which also led to the retirement of another officer. Bacon never received any discipline in relation to his incident which also left him seriously injured and he was promoted twice since then, including most recently to lieutenant.

Blevins's dog was also involved in two incidents, including one where the dog ran off and was lost for several hours. Blevins was not disciplined and he remained in the canine unit until he was promoted to sergeant. Now, he is a lieutenant.

Testimony was also presented by other police officers including Lt. Alex Tortes about hostile and unfair treatment against minority officers who were promoted to the command staff. Tortes had testified that he and another minority officer were subjected to the "exclusionary rule" and not included in discussions that involved decision making processes among management personnel who were White. Tortes and former Lt. Ron Orrantia, who was Hispanic, were also referred to as "Jerry's Kids", a term they found to be derogatory and offensive.

Burgess said that both sides had presented a lot of evidence to the jury that supported their respective positions. She added that she believed that the evidence presented by Sutton's attorney regarding retaliatory behavior by the department was "key to why they came up with that type of decision".

Retaliatory incidents that allegedly occurred after Sutton complained about racism in the department included an incident where his car was keyed, the placement of an offensive poster in his workplace, ostracization by other officers and an incident in April 2005 when the lieutenant watch commander allegedly moved the hands of the clock forward to set him up for discipline for being late to work. Sutton had said that a sergeant alerted him to what had happened and he arrived on time. When Sutton and a representative from the Riverside Police Officers Association addressed the incident, no discipline was imposed against Sutton and the matter was dropped, he testified at trial.

Burgess said that the presentation of the Home Boy flier may have been particularly influencial in the jury's decision. That flier spoofed a gun product, using racial stereotypes and had created controversy in other cities across the nation, in part because it was viewed as racially offensive. According to court records, the flier had been displayed on a bulletin board at the Orange Street Station for several months in 2001 at the time the city entered into its stipulated agreement with the State Attorney General's office to reform the department. In 2004, it was displayed in the breakroom at Lincoln Field Operations Station, according to Silverman.

"Someone on the jury may have been offended by that poster," Burgess said.

In the motion filed on Dec. 2, the city had stated that it would seek either a new trial or a reduction in the jury's verdict to $420,000. The city stated that the jury awarded excessive damages and its verdict was not supported by evidence. The motion also alleged that presiding commissioner Joan Burgess failed to properly instruct the jury and improperly excluded relevent evidence which was prejudiced against the city.
Sutton's attorneys had stated in their response to the motion that the evidence at trial clearly proved Sutton's allegations that he suffered racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation from the police department, after he complained about disparate treatment.

The jury's verdict favoring Sutton was the second decision made during a legal proceeding which awarded him financial compensation, since he filed his law suit in August 2000.

In March 2004, Sutton was forced to take his case to arbitration after the civil court system was shut down to handle a backload of criminal trials. After hearing the evidence presented by both parties, an arbitrator awarded Sutton $200,000 in June 2004. The city council decided in closed session to take the case to trial.

In an interview in 2004, Silverman had welcomed the opportunity to try the case in front of a jury.

"They want to roll the dice again. I think Roger if anything will do better in front of a jury than a judge," Silverman said in May 2004.

That turned out to be the case. It is not clear at this point, whether the city will decide to appeal the jury's decision at the Court of Appeals. Past history has shown that the city has been reluctant to pay out money on racial discrimination cases involving Black employees, while at the same time, it has settled at least one prior law suit alleging reverse racial and gender discrimination filed by six White male sergeants in 2000.

Ramirez appeared as unconvinced in the validity of the jury's decision, as the city often appears unconvinced that there is racism within its own workplace, even as it had battled another racial discrimination and harassment law suit originally filed by 17 Black city employees in U.S. District Court nearly 10 years ago. Burgess, however, remained steadfast in her decision.

"I don't know what the cutoff level is, but this is not it," Burgess said, just before she denied the city's motion.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Mary, you often quote Mahatma Ghandi, and I find it very inspiring. So much so, that I have dug deep into my soul and found further inspiration and guidance from a quote from one of the great African American leaders of the 20th century-

"Hey Hey Hey!"---Franklin "ReRun" Stubbs...

Monday, January 16, 2006 9:58:00 PM  
Blogger Five Before Midnight said...

I'm a bit surprised that after digging deep in your soul you brought up a fictitious African-American character and not a real person. But I think that's part of the problem in the RPD with some of its officers, in that when they have to reach back for anything positive to say about African-Americans, they rely on fictional depictions because they believe and feel they have very real-life experience to draw upon instead. That's a shame and financially for our city, also very expensive in terms of efforts made to address this problem.

Of course, this is a joke, and unfortuntately, I guess African-Americans continue to be the butt of many jokes in the RPD. Maybe a newer generation of officers will break that trend. The one that comes after your generation.

P.S. Actually, the name of this fictitious Black character is Fredrick "Rerun" Stubbs and the quote you attributed to this character was actually said by another character on the show, Dwayne Wayne, not Rerun.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006 9:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Friday, January 27, 2006 3:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In case you haven't heard Lt. Bacon is the departments biggest buffon and Roger Sutton is still one of the worst officers they have.

Sunday, June 11, 2006 8:57:00 PM  

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