The 12-member jury found Monday that Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole retaliated against a veteran sergeant, Ella Elias, and Capt. David Proudfoot. The jury ruled O’Toole did not retaliate against the third officer, Lt. Steve Strand.
In a setback for Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, a King County Superior Court jury on Monday found that 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 12-member jury found O’Toole retaliated against a veteran sergeant, Ella Elias, and Capt. David Proudfoot, who was 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, the central figure in the case, and $932,000 to Proudfoot.
During the two-week trial, the jury heard allegations that O’Toole retaliated against Elias, beginning in 2014, after she complained that lucrative overtime pay had been improperly steered to four favored black officers.
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Jurors also heard claims that O’Toole, in early 2015, transferred Proudfoot and Strand, who was the precinct’s second in command, because they opposed the department’s plan to transfer Elias, who is white, to another precinct.
Jurors had deliberated for a day and a half before reaching their verdict early Monday afternoon.
The three officers were not present when the verdict was announced in the Seattle courtroom of Judge William Downing, but arrived together soon after.
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 O’Toole, as a new chief, had stepped into a chaotic situation and the message to all parties was they need to “learn to communicate better.”
Strand said he was “puzzled” by the outcome in his case but realized the jury heard individual accounts. He said now it’s time to rebuild relationships.
City Attorney Pete Holmes, in a statement, said, “I am profoundly disappointed in the jury’s decision. We are, of course, exploring all avenues for relief from the verdict before Judge Downing and on appeal.”
He added, “If allowed to stand, this verdict leaves the City in a no-win situation: Had Chief O’Toole not addressed the hostile, racially-tainted work environment she encountered, the City likely would have been held financially liable.”
Holmes said that by taking action, the city “suffered this unfortunate result” and “continues to struggle to regain management of our police department.”
The verdict came four days after the announcement that the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild had overwhelming rejected a tentative four-year contract agreement, dashing police-accountability reforms in the deal.
Mayor Ed Murray, in a statement, said O’Toole, who became chief in 2014, inherited a department with major challenges, including significant management issues and racial tension in the South Precinct dating to 2011.
“I hired the chief with great confidence in her ability to make tough management decisions in the middle of a federal consent-decree process,” he said, referring to court-ordered reforms, stemming from a 2012 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, to curb excessive force and biased policing.
“I support the decision she made in this case,” he said.
O’Toole, in a statement, said, “I took the high road during this process and will take the high road during the appeal. I was hired to lead this department through needed reforms, will continue to make the hard decisions necessary to move forward, and will stand by those decisions.”
At least 10 jurors had to agree on each verdict, although the split on each answer wasn’t revealed.
But one juror, who asked not to be named, said the vote was 10 to 2 on Elias and Proudfoot, and nearly unanimous on Strand.
Elias was viewed as a sympathetic figure, with the majority of the jury paying less credence to race and the department’s need to handle the situation, the juror said.
Elias sued the city in 2014; Proudfoot and Strand later joined the suit.
During the trial, the city painted Elias as a divisive leader who ultimately was removed from the South Precinct over a racially charged comment.
O’Toole testified she transferred the three supervisors to defuse a “powder keg” between warring officers.
During closing arguments Thursday, Julie Kays, an attorney for Elias, Strand and Proudfoot, said they were 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.
Jurors awarded Elias $400,000 for past and future economic damages and $1.5 million for emotional harm. They awarded Proudfoot $182,000 for his past and future losses and $750,000 for emotional harm.
The jury concluded Strand’s move wasn’t retaliation because he received a “lateral transfer,” said the juror who described the deliberations.
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.
The jury majority believed the second transfer was retaliatory because it occurred before Elias got a chance to explain her actions to the chief, according to the juror.
In opening statements, Lincoln Beauregard, another attorney representing the three officers, told jurors Elias regretted making the remark after being told to take on a problem officer in her squad who is Native American.