The Voice of OC’s Thy Vo and commenters below the story noted that, by indemnifying the police chiefs, the council undercut the purpose of punitive damages, meant to “discourage misconduct.”
This action by the Westminster City Council calls to mind the ongoing civil suit bought by Ron Thomas against the city of Fullerton over the fatal beating of his son Kelly at the hands of the Fullerton Police Department. The suit names not only the city of Fullerton, but the officers involved in the arrest/beating, and former police chiefs Michael Sellers, in office at the time of the death, and his immediate predecessor Pat McKinley, later elected to the Fullerton City Council. Michael Sellers later retired from the position, citing medical issues.
Fullerton settled with Cathy Thomas, mother of the victim, for $ 1 million a year after her son’s death. Should Ron Thomas prevail in court, will the city of Fullerton vote to pick up the tab for any damages awarded to him from the three named officers, the two former officers, and the two former police chiefs? Two of the officers, later fired by the police department, were famously (infamously?) acquitted in criminal cases against them over the death, but the threshold for victory in a civil case is lower. If a jury finds misconduct on the part of the police officers, and agrees that then-Chief Sellers and former Chief Pat McKinley shared the blame for it, they might assign a considerable judgement against them to discourage such behavior in the future, but will it be effective?
UC Irvine’s School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, a renowned legal figure in the United States, noted in a recent OC Register article that, “If the plaintiff wins, it will send a message of wrongful police behavior.”
But will that message resonate with the Fulleton City Council or the Fullerton Police Department if the council opts to indemnify Pat McKinley, Michael Sellers, or any of the current or fired officers named in the suit? Indemnifying police officers and officials financially in such a case also indemnifies them informally against any accountability they might otherwise face in their professional actions. They are free to do as they choose with the power they hold, while leaving the taxpayers holding the bag.