Ceres has approved two settlements totaling $400,000 to end a lawsuit that claims several police officers secretly video recorded two female civilian co-workers, and in one instance allegedly took video of one employee’s upper thigh and underpants while she was wearing a dress.
The city admitted no liability in the settlements, which were approved by the City Council. The lawsuit was dismissed in Stanislaus County Superior Court in September. Each woman received $200,000.
The two women also alleged they were subject to other acts of discrimination and harassment, that police officials retaliated against the women when they complained, and that the Police Department did not conduct thorough investigations of their complaints.
The lawsuit said one of the women is married to a female officer and faced additional discrimination and harassment because of her sexual orientation.
Insurance paid the settlements. Ceres belongs to the Central San Joaquin Valley Risk Management Authority, and it pays the authority an annual premium to handle lawsuits and other matters involving the city.
City Manager Toby Wells said in an email the authority paid the settlement and the city’s legal costs. Wells said Ceres paid a $25,000 deductible. He said Ceres’ premium payment to the authority is $682,170 for its current budget year.
Wells said if Ceres had rejected the settlements — which he said were negotiated by the authority — then it would have been responsible for all costs going forward. He said regardless of how strongly Ceres felt about its case, the authority made a business decision to end the litigation that was in the best interest of the 54 cities it represents.
But this lawsuit is not the only issue Ceres has faced in recent years involving its officers.
Ceres has had three fatal officer-involved shootings since March 2015. The district attorney’s office cleared the officers in the first two, though lawsuits have been filed against the city in those shootings. The third shooting occurred in October and is under investigation.
And Ceres settled another lawsuit involving one of its officers in 2015 for $312,500. The lawsuit alleged that in 2012 the officer broke a handcuffed woman’s arm as he slammed her against a car. The risk authority paid the settlement.
Regarding the two recent settlements, Carissa Higginbotham and Alexandra Warner sued Ceres in April 2015. They were represented by the Walnut Creek law firm of Casper, Meadows, Schwartz & Cook.
The settlements include confidentiality provisions that essentially bar the women from commenting. But their attorney offered a brief statement. “I’m pleased with the outcome on behalf of both of my clients,” Stan Casper said Friday.
The lawsuit said Higginbotham worked for the Police Department for more than a decade in executive administrative positions before resigning in November 2014. Warner went to work for the department in January 2012 as a crime analyst and crime scene technician, according to the lawsuit. She was required to resign from her job as part of her settlement.
The lawsuit claims that while attending an Oct. 29, 2013, shift briefing, Higginbotham noticed a cell phone on the floor. She asked who owned it, and officer Coey Henson said it was his. Higginbotham, who was wearing a dress, decided not to pick up the phone before leaving the briefing.
The lawsuit claims that later that day, Henson showed her the cell phone video, which included video of her upper thigh and underpants. Higginbotham was offended and told Henson not to show the video to anyone. But the lawsuit claims Henson shared the video with other officers.
The lawsuit says Higginbotham complained about Henson. The department conducted an investigation and placed him on leave. The lawsuit states Henson was fired in February 2014. Casper said in a previous story that Henson appealed the decision and got his job back.
The lawsuit alleges Police Chief Brent Smith supported Henson and directed hate speech at Higginbotham because of her and her spouse’s sexual orientation.
The lawsuit states Warner worked in the Street Crimes Unit and claims the male employees in the unit were hostile to her and made it difficult for her to do her job. The lawsuit claims that on May 19, 2014, Warner found a surveillance video camera hidden in her office.
The camera was angled toward her desk and where she changed clothes before working out in the department's fitness room. The lawsuit states Warner locked the office door before changing. “The videotape reflected that, for about one month, if not longer, the hidden video camera continually recorded Warner working in her office,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit claimed that even though a department investigation determined the male employees placed the camera in the office, they were cleared of sexual discrimination and harassment charges. The lawsuit identified the employees as Sgt. Johnson and officers Albonetti, Griebel and Nieuwenhuis.
“The City investigated both incidents and took corrective action commensurate with the findings of the internal affairs investigations,” Wells said in his email. “Due to privacy laws, the City cannot identify discipline taken, if any, against the accused employees.”
He said Henson and all of the officers except Albonetti remain with Ceres. He said Albonetti was not fired because of this incident.
Wells said these incidents took place a few years ago, and the Police Department has improved under Smith’s leadership. Smith, who has been with the department for about 20 years, was named interim chief in June 2014 and permanent chief in February 2015.
He replaced longtime Public Safety Director Art de Werk. Ceres also reorganized its public safety operations, separating police and fire into separate departments.
Wells said Smith “has done an outstanding job addressing the challenges of the (Police) Department and ensuring that all of our officers were equipped with necessary training and tools to effectively do their jobs.”
“This includes creating a culture of equality, accountability and building relationships with our community,” Wells continued. “Being a Police Officer is a very difficult job, and we are very proud of our officers and the service they provide to our community, and we are striving to ensure we hold all of our employees to the highest possible standards.”
De Werk worked for Ceres for 15 years and was a popular public safety director and drew praise from community members. The City Council in June 2014 relieved him of his duties shortly after he had returned from medical leave and approved an agreement that put him on paid leave for about eight months.
The agreement called for de Werk not to take legal action against the city regarding his separation or make disparaging remarks about the city. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316