A T-shirt with the word “testicle” on it worn by a Long Beach cop to a sexual harassment training seminar apparently mattered little to a jury that awarded the officer $1.7 million as a public-spirited whistleblower.
The former Long Beach Police Department Port Security Unit sergeant testified in the trial that he was subjected to relentless scrutiny and ostracized for alerting superiors to overtime violations by the Long Beach Harbor Patrol.
The Los Angeles Superior Court panel deliberated for about a half-day before finding that ex-Sgt. Timothy O’Hara was a victim of whistleblower retaliation.
“I’m pleased that I can now leave this behind me and move on in my life,” the former Navy SEAL said after the verdict.
Asked if he would discourage anyone from joining the LBPD, O’Hara replied, “The Long Beach Police Department was a great place to work until this action. Just because this happened to me doesn’t mean someone else can’t go on and have a great career there.”
A lawyer for the city could not be immediately reached for comment.
Christopher Brizzolara, one of O’Hara’s lawyers, said he hopes the verdict prompts the city of Long Beach to more carefully monitor how money is spent in the port. He also said he believes O’Hara is entitled to attorneys’ fees, but that issue will be determined later.
The total damage award was $1.69 million, and $1 million of that amount was for O’Hara’s past and future pain and suffering.
O’Hara said he was confronted with internal affairs investigations and unnecessary counseling, even after he successfully appealed most of the punishment he received for wearing a T-shirt with the word “testicle” on it during a sexual harassment training seminar in September 2011.
“His life was a life of service and they took that away from him,” O’Hara’s other attorney, Gregory W. Smith, said during final arguments Tuesday. “That is real pain and suffering.”
But Deputy City Attorney Monte Machit said O’Hara had only himself to blame when he went to the seminar wearing the T-shirt, which the plaintiff bought at a gun store near his current home in Cody, Wyoming.
“This is a case about a sergeant being punished for inappropriate conduct,” Machit said. “He used very poor judgment when he went to a sexual harassment seminar wearing that T-shirt.”
As punishment for wearing the T-shirt to the seminar, then-LBPD Chief Jim McDonnell — now Los Angeles County’s sheriff — suspended O’Hara for 20 hours, transferred him from the Port Security Unit to patrol and also removed him from the dive team.
O’Hara appealed and a Civil Service Commission ruling restored him to his old job, but upheld the suspension.
O’Hara alleged members of the Long Beach Harbor Patrol Dive Team claimed overtime for work not performed and that some of them were impersonating police officers. Unlike the Port Security Unit, which is made up of sworn police officers and has its own diving squad, the Harbor Patrol and its dive team’s members are security guards.
The police department’s Port Security Unit was established in 2001 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with the goal of keeping a constant police presence at the Port of Long Beach. The unit works along with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to patrol waterways and maintain safety.
The Long Beach Harbor Patrol is a division of the Port of Long Beach focused on security and public safety.
In 2010-11, O’Hara and Sgt. Steve Smock told the City Auditor’s Office about their allegations against the members of the Harbor Patrol dive team. The auditor’s subsequent report found that Harbor Patrol dive team members received unjustified overtime and that inadequate documentation provided by the patrol made it hard to determine how the divers spent most of their time, according to the lawsuit.
O’Hara, 53, said the combination of neck and back injuries while helping move a suspect shot by police to a place where he could get medical treatment and his treatment by LBPD management after he returned made him decide to retire in 2016 rather than three years later as he originally planned. He joined the LBPD in 1993.
O’Hara testified his blood pressure “went through the roof” and that the alleged mistreatment by police management “forced me into a depression.”
“I don’t think I was accepted by the bosses,” O’Hara told jurors. “It wasn’t worth it anymore to continue the fight.”
—City News Service