- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - A federal jury on Thursday awarded more than $3.5 million to three Westminster police officers who said they were denied promotions because they are Latino.

The jury deliberated four days before ruling for Jose Flores, Ryan Reyes and Brian Perez in their discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the Orange County city, Police Chief Kevin Baker and three former chiefs, said Victor Viramontes, one of their attorneys.

The patrol officers “feel like this is a significant victory,” he said. “It was very difficult for them to come forward, to put their careers in jeopardy. … They’re very grateful that the federal court system was there.”

The jurors ruled that the city of Westminster should pay $260,000 in damages for retaliation and the chiefs should pay the rest.

However, Melanie Poturica, an attorney who represented the city and the chiefs, said the jury found no indication that the Police Department showed any pattern of discrimination against Latino officers and that discrimination was not a “substantial motivating factor” in the officers’ failing to move ahead.

Jurors may have found that the chiefs discriminated but the verdict form is “confusing,” Poturica said, adding that she read the verdict as not finding discrimination by the chiefs.

The city probably will consider filing a motion for a new trial or appealing, Poturica said.

“There really are inconsistent verdicts,” she said.

The lawsuit, filed in 2011, contended that the Police Department denied the officers special assignments such as SWAT or detective duties, and rejected their bids for promotion to sergeant while less experienced or qualified officers received the perks.

“These officers have more than 40 years of service between them and they haven’t been given even a single detective position between them,” Viramontes said.

The officers also claimed there were signs of discrimination in the department, including a literal one that said “Whites Only” that was posted in the police station nearly two decades ago and later removed.

Flores and Reyes also contended that they were disciplined in retaliation for filing state discrimination complaints.

Reyes was reprimanded for being slow to file paperwork and Flores was reprimanded for failing to respond to a domestic violence call.

“They were basically writing them up for doing things that were common practice in the office,” Viramontes said.

Perez was on active military duty with the Marine Corps for all but one month from 2008 to 2013, including a year in Afghanistan, so it was hard to give him a special assignment, Poturica argued during the trial.

Latinos now comprise about 15 percent of the approximately 90-member police force and several have been promoted but they are disproportionately assigned to duty at the local shopping mall, which is considered a “road to nowhere” professionally, Viramontes said.

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