Lobstergate shakes Long Beach PD

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Posted by on October 19, 2006 at 14:39:00:

A group of port security officers were allegedly caught diving for lobsters while they were assigned to patrol the port, according to a lawsuit filed by three veteran police officers who claim they suffered retaliation after blowing the whistle.

The unpermitted scuba dives, which occurred in the fall of 2003, resulted in transfers and letters of reprimand for at least four Long Beach police officers. And the controversy - dubbed "Lobstergate" - became instant fodder for the LBPD's rumor mill.

But in a lawsuit filed July 26 in Los Angeles Superior Court, Officers Craig Patterson and Warren Harris and Sgt. David Gage claim they endured months of harassment and discrimination "for disclosing and testifying truthfully about the illegal conduct of the officers."

"Among other things," the lawsuit states, "plaintiffs were labeled as 'snitches' and 'malcontents,' told to carry their firearms while off duty (implying that their lives were in danger), refused transfers, issued lower than normal evaluations, refused promotions, refused or severely limited overtime, unfairly charged for not performing duties and sent for retention physicals in an attempt to terminate their employment."

The plaintiffs said they were working for the LBPD's Port Security Unit - a team assembled in the aftermath of 9/11 and funded partially through government grants - when they reported that a group of their fellow officers had used the police boat to dive for lobsters in the Port of Long Beach, among other misdeeds.

An internal investigation was completed in January 2005, and all the men involved, directly or peripherally, were either transferred out of the unit, issued letters of reprimand, or both, said attorney James Trott, who represented the accused officers.

Initially, three officers and a sergeant were suspended, Trott said, but the suspensions were reduced to letters of reprimand.

Trott said even the letters of reprimand were an extreme punishment because, as he understands it, only one or two lobsters were ever brought on the boat.

"This was one of the most overblown cases that I have seen in that department in a long time," Trott said. "This whole case was over a lobster."

Overblown or not, it appears the case isn't going away.

On Sept. 13, Gage authored a detailed memo to Mayor Bob Foster, airing his belief that the LBPD's Internal Affairs investigation into the lobster-diving incident and other misconduct was incomplete and poorly conducted, and resulted in a lack of severe discipline for any of the officers involved.

Gage, a 24-year veteran of the force whose retirement is pending, wrote that the officers allegedly fabricated a story to cover up the illegal diving, lied on their time cards, misused equipment and funds, and retaliated against the officers who reported their behavior, among other things.

He also alleged that Chief Anthony Batts and his command staff chose to overlook fireable offenses and to hide the investigation from the Civil Service Commission to save the department embarrassment and save the whistle-blowers from having to testify against the accused officers.

"All of the accused officers remain on duty and are tasked with making arrests and testifying in court to their actions, even when they have already shown their untrustworthiness," Gage said in his memo.

Mayor Foster received the memo but declined to comment Wednesday through his spokeswoman, Becki Ames.

"The matter is in litigation," Ames said. "And we've been advised by the Long Beach attorney (Robert Shannon) that we can't comment."

Police officials were equally close-lipped.

Deputy Police Chief Tim Jackman, who is acting as chief while Batts is in Boston on business, said he could not discuss the internal investigation or the lawsuit.

"I can tell you it's going through the normal investigative procedures," Jackman said. "Because it's a personnel issue, and because we have pending litigation, I can't comment on the case."

The LBPD's Port Security Unit coordinates with the Port of Long Beach to patrol the area. More than a dozen members of the team work round-the-clock shifts, taking turns in a police boat - purchased through federal grants - and in a squad car on land.

But in the fall of 2003, the small, specialized detail began to suffer internal strife, according to people familiar with the case.

Gage and others reported wrongdoing by a group of officers, sparking an internal investigation in early 2004, said Principal Deputy City Attorney Belinda Mayes, who is now representing the city against the retaliation lawsuit.

At the end of the year-long investigation, members of the Port Security Unit were transferred to other details and a new team was assembled.

"The investigation was more than complete," Trott said, "and the discipline was far beyond anything that was reasonable in my eyes."

Long Beach Police Officers Association President Steve James said he has friends on both sides of the issue and that it's hard to say who was at fault initially.

But he said he is convinced that the controversy known as "Lobstergate" has been woefully exaggerated.

"Everyone calls it that," he said of the nickname. "It was an insignificant thing, in the overall scheme of things, that became a huge thing - and one that won't be forgotten."

Gage, Patterson and Harris could not be reached for comment Wednesday, and their civil attorney, Gregory Smith, was in trial and unavailable for comment.

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