An attorney for a sergeant, lieutenant and captain told a King County jury his clients were the targets of retaliation by the Seattle Police Department, but the city challenged the claim.
In a highly unusual look inside the Seattle Police Department, a King County jury heard allegations Monday that Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole retaliated against a veteran sergeant who complained that lucrative overtime pay had been improperly steered to four favored black officers.
The 12-member jury also heard claims that O’Toole retaliated against a captain and lieutenant last year who questioned the department’s handling of the matter, rather than seeking to heal the overall problem.
“You build bridges. You don’t build walls,” Lincoln Beauregard, a Tacoma attorney representing Sgt. Ella Elias, Lt. Steve Strand and Capt. David Proudfoot, said in opening statements of a Superior Court trial.
The three longtime officers are seeking unspecified monetary damages over their transfers to different assignments with less pay.
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But the city of Seattle’s lawyer painted a starkly different picture, telling jurors that Elias, a white officer, was a divisive leader who was transferred from the South Precinct to another precinct over a racially charged comment.
Proudfoot, who commanded the South Precinct at the time, and Strand, the second-ranking precinct officer, were transferred to address a festering situation that had become bogged down in polarizing conflicts, said attorney Jessie Harris.
“The waters have been calmed,” said Harris, asserting that relations in the South Precinct had improved, and that the moves were made in the best interest of the city and community and not for retaliatory reasons.
“The status quo was not an option,” Harris said.
Beauregard, as part of his portrayal of the case, also sought to effectively put O’Toole on trial, suggesting she acted expediently because Mayor Ed Murray brought her in as a reformer in 2014 after the U.S. Justice Department found that officers too often resorted to excessive force, sometimes against minorities.
He also characterized her as a money-driven career builder, who still has strong ties to the East Coast, where she once worked as Boston’s police commissioner, and who is not invested in Seattle and is using her post as a steppingstone.
Harris countered that Seattle got a reformer and high-profile chief, saying there was “no reason to ridicule her.”
O’Toole is to be called as a witness in the trial, the product of a 2014 lawsuit initially brought by Elias and later joined by Strand and Proudfoot.
The suit alleged that the four favored officers were friends of then-Assistant Chief Nick Metz, who is African American and left in 2015 to take a chief’s job in Colorado.
Elias complained that the overtime pay, approved under a 2011 nightclub-emphasis program and worth up to $40,000 yearly to each officer, should be open to all patrol officers in the precinct, Beauregard told jurors.
Her concern was about fairness and not race, he said.
Although the department affirmed her position, she faced pushback and hostility, he said.
“The tensions got worse and worse,” Beauregard said, leading to internal investigations of Elias.
Harris told jurors that one internal investigation found Elias had engaged in misconduct when, while working in the South Precinct, she told Strand she would be more comfortable working with white officers under 40 years old.
She was reprimanded and transferred because of that statement, Harris said, describing the sanction as reasonable and measured.
Beauregard explained that Elias made the remark after being told, amid the 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.
Harris said the four officers given the nightclub assignment were chosen because of their skills and because they got results.
Elias, he said, drove a wedge that led to chilly relations between officers in the South Precinct.
He also said that Elias, after finding a brochure on her desk prepared by an African- American police advisory group, remarked, “Get that (expletive) off my desk.”
Judge William Downing is presiding over the trial.