LOS ANGELES (CN) - A jury awarded $1.2 million in damages to a black Los Angeles police officer who claimed that white colleagues racially harassed him with jokes about watermelons and Soul Glow.
Earl Wright sued the city of Los Angeles and is police department in Superior Court last year, claiming his fellow officers and bosses retaliated against him after he complained of harassment by his superior Sgt. Peter Foster and other white officers.
Wright claimed in his complaint that the incidents at the central division station where he worked left him "very upset, embarrassed and humiliated."
Greg Smith, the Beverly Hills attorney who represented Wright, told Courthouse News that Wright was pleased the jury had ordered the city to compensate Wright.
"It would have been very bad for him if he'd received a defense verdict," Smith said in an interview, noting that Sgt. Foster was the only officer who had lost his job.
"The command staff that did nothing to remedy the situation should be punished," Smith added. "But that's never going to happen. That's the culture of the Los Angeles Police Department."
Laying that alleged "culture" bare in his 14-page complaint, Wright described how Foster had responded to his request to leave work.
"'Why, you gotta go pick watermelons?'" Foster allegedly said.
In another incident, white officers downloaded pictures of Wright from his Facebook page and posted them around the office "under the direction of" Foster, according to the complaint.
"Under the first picture was written the words 'before yak,' plaintiff believes that 'yak' referred to a popular alcoholic beverage, 'cognac,' that African-Americans drink," the complaint stated. "Under the second picture was written 'The Lost Jackson.' Plaintiff believes that 'The Lost Jackson' referred to Michael Jackson's family. Under the third picture was written 'Soul Glow.' Plaintiff believes that 'Soul Glow' referred to the 1980's curly hairstyle for African-American men as portrayed in the movie, 'Coming to America,' starring Eddie Murphy. Under the fourth picture was written 'keepen it Gangster After a Bottle of Yak.' Plaintiff believes that this statement also was referring to the alcoholic beverage 'cognac' and referring to plaintiff as a gangster. Also written on the poster were the words 'Sup Fool, Lost Member, NWA.' Plaintiff is informed and believes that 'NWA' refers to a rap group called 'Niggaz with Attitudes.'"
Wright claimed that Foster had given him a cake with a piece of fried chicken leg and a slice of watermelon on top.
"At least ten other officers were present and witnessed this incident," the lawsuit stated.
Foster also allegedly sent Wright a text message of a "picture of one yellow duckling with his arms raised above his head standing in front of five black ducklings. Under the picture were the words 'sup niggas.'"
During the four-day jury trial, city attorneys tried to persuade the jury that Wright had participated in the events alleged in his complaint, according to the Los Angeles Times coverage of the verdict.
Officer Randall McCain testified that Wright had laughed when he was presented with the cake, and ate the chicken on top, the Times reported.
"I have known Earl Wright for 15, 16 years; we worked together for the past five. And Earl Wright has joked, pulled pranks and talked about other races in a joking way just like the rest of us," McCain told the Times in an interview. "Everything this guy is claiming was done to him, he did himself. He lied about the way he was feeling."
But in his complaint, Wright said McCain had threatened to assault him after he complained to a division captain.
"On or about September, 2010, plaintiff was informed by other co-workers that Officer Randy McCain was threatening to 'kick his ass,' referring to plaintiff, and stated that plaintiff better not return to central division," the complaint stated.
The Times noted that Department Chief Charlie Beck "echoed" McCain's claims that Wright was a knowing participant.
"I am truly saddened by the events that occurred in that work environment by a few individuals, including Officer Wright," Beck said in a statement. "There is absolutely no excuse for the reprehensible actions of the officers involved."
"The lawsuit alleged a hostile work environment based on race, failure to prevent a hostile work environment and retaliation," the statement continues. "Wright's claim of retaliation was thrown out by the court because Wright could not demonstrate that he suffered any adverse employment actions by the department."
In his second amended complaint, Wright claimed he was placed on injury on duty at home after returning to full duty following his release from a medical doctor.
Wright says he was demoted in retaliation after he made it clear that he did not want to return to the central division station where McCain had made the alleged threats.
Taxpayers have been on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements for harassment, retaliation and discrimination claims, the Times articles notes.
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