A racial discrimination lawsuit against the Municipality of Anchorage is likely to be retried after the verdict was unsealed Tuesday morning. Jurors decided two alleged instances of discrimination against two former drug detectives were unfounded but remained split on another complaint relating to retaliation, which the plaintiffs' attorney said was related to a criminal investigation against his clients.
Alvin Kennedy and Eliezer Feliciano were undercover detectives who'd been working at the Anchorage Police Department for 20 years before leaving due to what their lawsuit claimed was a hostile and racist work environment. Kennedy is African-American and Feliciano is Hispanic.
The former detectives sued the city in 2010, saying their superiors at the department treated them unfairly because of race. The lawsuit claimed "sanctioned racial profiling, disparate treatment of minority officers, and the condoning of constitutional violations by white officers against minorities."
Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner said he would respond in writing whether to accept the partial verdict. Regardless of his decision, the allegation related to retaliation would require a retrial, he said.
The earliest the discrimination case could once again come before a judge is June 2015, Pfiffner said. He asked the parties to submit proposals for a trial date within 10 days. Kennedy and Feliciano whispered to each other, and Kennedy gave a look of dismay when Pfiffner said the retrial wouldn't start for another year.
Among the two men's allegations: An officer allegedly followed Kennedy, who was working undercover, then pulled him over because he was black. And Feliciano claimed top police officials gave him a failing grade on a test for promotion because of his race.
The drug unit in which Kennedy and Feliciano worked was eventually disbanded as retaliation for the detectives raising issues of race, said plaintiffs' attorney Kenneth Legacki. Superiors had commended the men on their past work, but some were critical afterward of those same cases in an attempt to discredit them, Legacki said. The police brass wanted to find justification for disbanding the unit after the fact, he said.
The men were asking for $2 million each for wages they could have earned if they had continued their careers, as well as compensation for mental anguish.
Police officials denied any discrimination took place. The city's lawyer, Linda Johnson, was hired to represent the municipality at a cost of more than $350,000. She argued during the more than two-week trial that the accusations were untrue.
Johnson said the officer who pulled Kennedy over was trying to see if the driver matched the description of the vehicle's registered owner. Police stopped using the tactic, in part because the community might think it was profiling, but the defense attorney argued that does not mean it was unlawful or discriminatory. She said Feliciano failed his test for promotion three times; his superiors reportedly said it was obvious the detective did not study.
Johnson said the real reason for disbanding the drug unit was that after repeated directives to stop long-term investigations in favor of lower-level drug buys and better productivity statistics, detectives continued to work as they always had.
The jury reached a partial verdict in early April, but the trial judge went out of town that weekend. The verdict stayed sealed for over a month.
Legacki said the undecided retaliation allegation stems from the department trying to fabricate a criminal case against his clients. According to court testimony, the criminal investigation has been going on since at least August 2010.
"It's been nearly four years and we still have not obtained the file (on the investigation)," Legacki said.
As for the jurors' decisions, he contended that discrimination is hard to prove. In instances where minorities feel offended, "white people feel it's not a big deal," Legacki said. That does not mean discrimination did not take place, he said.
"We'll keep fighting," Legacki said after Tuesday's hearing. "I think there will be more evidence coming out, and we'll be revisiting issues. It was a very complicated case, so it doesn't bother me."
Anchorage police Chief Mark Mew said outside the courtroom that it felt like a weight had been taken off the department's shoulders. He said it was encouraging to see the jury believed some of the issues were dealt with appropriately.
"The bottom line is two out of three questions have been answered. ... I don't know if we'll have to start over from square one," he said.
Mew added the trial was not easy for him; he took the stand and testified about two former officers. He said there are a lot of the things he'd like to say but would have to save those comments for court.
Reach Jerzy Shedlock at email@example.com.
Correction: This story originally stated that Linda Johnson represented an Outside law firm. The firm is based in Alaska.
By JERZY SHEDLOCK