Jury finds Seattle police chief retaliated against 2 officers in overtime pay dispute

THE SEATTLE TIMES

July 25, 2016

A King County Superior Court jury on Monday found that Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole retaliated against two of three officers who were transferred out of the South Precinct amid a dispute over the handling of overtime pay.

The jury found O’Toole retaliated against a veteran sergeant, Ella Elias, and Capt. David Proudfoot, the precinct commander. The jury ruled that O’Toole did not retaliate against the third officer, Lt. Steve Strand.

The jury awarded $1.9 million to Elias and $932,000 to Proudfoot.

Jurors had deliberated for a day and a half before reaching their verdict a short time ago. The three officers were not present when the verdict was announced.

Afterward, Elias thanked the jury.

“I’m just grateful that they listened to us,” Elias said. “For me, it’s been five years this has been going on. So it’s been a long time.”

“I think it’s a fair ruling and I appreciate it,” Proudfoot said, while expressing disappointment that Strand didn’t prevail.

He said the message to all parties was that we need to “learn to communicate better.”

Strand said he was “puzzled” by the verdict in his case, but realized the jury heard individual accounts. He said now was the time to “rebuild relationships” in department that have been strained for two years.

During the trial, the 12-member jury heard allegations that O’Toole retaliated against Elias after she complained that lucrative overtime pay had been improperly steered to four favored black officers.

Jurors also heard claims O’Toole retaliated against Proudfoot and Strand, the precinct’s second in command, when they opposed the department’s plan to transfer Elias to another precinct.

Elias sued the city in 2014. Proudfoot and Strand later joined the suit, alleging they were transferred after challenging the department’s handling of Elias.

An attorney for the city painted a different picture, telling jurors that Elias, a white officer, was a divisive leader who ultimately was removed from the South Precinct over a racially charged comment.

Proudfoot and Strand were transferred for failing to address a festering situation that had become bogged down in polarizing conflicts, attorney Jessie Harris told jurors at the outset of the trial.

O’Toole testified she transferred the three supervisors to defuse a “powder keg” between warring officers, contradicting claims she retaliated against them in response to the overtime dispute.

Jurors heard closing arguments Thursday afternoon.

Julie Kays, an attorney for Elias, Strand and Proudfoot, said all three had been transferred to new duties with reduced pay.

Citing past and future economic damages, Kays asked the jury to award $731,007 to Elias; $714,335 to Strand; and $467,391 to Proudfoot.

She also asked the jury to award each $1 million to $3 million for emotional harm.

All three had been put on a “slow train to nowhere” because they “stood up and did the right thing,” Kays said.

Harris, in closing remarks, told jurors the transfers stemmed from the department brass rising above conflict and doing what was needed to address it.

Elias was initially transferred out of the precinct on a temporary basis, then was reprimanded and received a disciplinary transfer after telling Strand she preferred to work only with white officers under 40 years old.

During the opening statements of the trial, Lincoln Beauregard, another attorney representing the three officers, told jurors Elias made the remark after being informed, amid pressure on her, to take on a problem officer in her squad who is Native American. She wishes she had not made the remark, he said.

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