A veteran police sergeant has filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle, alleging she was the target of retaliation after she complained that lucrative overtime pay had been improperly steered to four favored officers.
All four “happened to be close friends” of Assistant Chief Nick Metz, who, along with other commanding officers, approved 16 hours of overtime every weekend for a period of months as part of a nightclub-emphasis program launched around late 2011, according to the suit brought by Sgt. Ella Elias, who joined the Seattle Police Department in 1992.
The assignment resulted in significant monetary gain — roughly at least $63 per hour — for each of the South Precinct officers, the suit alleges.
Elias learned in late 2011 or early 2012 that the assignment had not been open to all patrol officers in the precinct, as required by department rules, and brought the issue to the attention of her superiors in light of the “blatant unfairness of this situation,” according to the suit. Her complaints initially fell on deaf ears, but her superiors eventually put a stop to the special treatment after realizing she had identified a discriminatory practice, the suit says.
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As a result, the awarding of overtime was opened to all precinct officers, according to the suit. When the four officers became aware she was responsible for “stopping their overtime gravy train,” one of them confronted Elias and yelled to someone else to get Metz on the phone, the suit alleges.
“With that, what happened next can only be described as a relentless campaign of hostility, discrimination and retaliation directed at Elias, and conducted by the ‘four officers’ with the blessing of Chief Metz and other SPD commanding officers,” the suit says.
Metz, who oversees the Patrol Operations Bureau, is African American. The suit notes that the four officers are African American and Metz “literally hangs out with them” when at the precinct.
Elias, 48, is white.
Her suit, filed Nov. 21 in King County Superior Court by Tacoma attorney Julie Kays, a former King County deputy prosecutor, cites retaliation, a hostile work environment and sex discrimination. It contends Elias has an outstanding work record.
In reply, the city issued a statement: “The City Attorney’s Office is aware of the allegations and will answer the complaint soon. We deny the allegations and will vigorously defend the Seattle Police Department. Sergeant Elias was offered the opportunity to participate in an internal investigation of her claims and declined to do so, choosing instead to file a lawsuit seeking several million dollars from the city. We look forward to responding more fully through the court process.”
Although the suit seeks unspecified damages, a preliminary claim Elias filed against the city asked for $2 million to $3 million in damages.
Kays disputed the city’s statement, saying Elias had participated in all SPD internal-affairs investigations. Elias declined to give a “second and redundant statement” to the human-resources section because it had access to her internal-affairs statement, Kays said.
The suit alleges the four officers banded together against Elias, repeatedly defying or ignoring her orders. They also would leave a room when she entered, including mandatory roll calls, according to the suit.
At no time, the suit says, were the officers disciplined.
A captain sought to undermine Elias and lodged a complaint on behalf of the four officers, arguing that her overtime beef had created a hostile work environment for them, according to the suit.
“The filing of this complaint was pure retaliation,” the suit says.
Elias was removed from her position and sent home, tarnishing her reputation, according to the suit. She was off nearly a month in early 2013, according to Kays. When Elias returned to work, she was given a “made-up” office position for six months, the suit says.
A department investigation of accusations by the captain and the four officers that Elias had engaged in hostile and “racist” behavior were deemed unfounded and without merit, according to the suit. But a letter noting cursing inside the precinct was put in her employment file, the suit says.
Elias returned to patrol duties in the South Precinct in August 2013, according to Kays.
Regularly required to supervise the four officers when their sergeant wasn’t available, she faced open defiance and ridicule from them in violation of SPD policies, the suit alleges.
After filing her claim with the city, Metz ordered Elias removed as a South Precinct sergeant, over the strong objections of precinct Capt. David Proudfoot, the suit says.
In an email attached to the suit, Proudfoot described Elias as a strong leader of the type needed to “move the precinct forward” as the department embraces federally mandated reforms. Under a 2012 consent degree with the U.S. Justice Department, the department is taking steps to curtail excessive force and biased policing.
“Frankly, we need leaders,” Proudfoot wrote. “Involuntarily transferring Sgt. Elias will be seen by many as more evidence that success is more about who they associate with than how they perform.”
Calling Elias “one of my strongest supervisors,” Proudfoot added, “I believe involuntarily transferring Sgt. Elias is likely to be seen as retaliatory and will increase liability for the department.”
Proudfoot urged mediation as the best resolution.
The suit alleges that Metz, “blinded by his loyalty and personal friendship” with the four officers, ordered Elias transferred to the West Precinct as a fill-in sergeant.