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Quick action needed to stop retaliation cases escalating

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ATLANTA — Advance preparation on several fronts is essential for municipal risk managers to respond appropriately and minimize potential liabilities as cases of retaliation and excessive force abound.

Ashley Bonner, Atlanta-based senior risk control consultant at Trident Insurance Services L.L.C., said all public entities can be hit with retaliation claims that often arise out of discrimination.

She cited several major lawsuits to illustrate the seriousness of the issue, including the case that former parks worker James Duffy brought in 2011 against the City of Los Angeles alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on his race and disability. The city in February voted to pay a nearly $4 million judgment that a jury awarded in 2014, which was upheld on appeal.

“How can you get to $4 million?” Ms. Bonner asked. “Basically, it spun out of control because of personal animosity with all of the people involved. There was a termination involved, threats of, "I'm gonna kill you,' and an unusually toxic atmosphere.”

Ms. Bonner, speaking during the Public Risk Management Association's annual conference in Atlanta earlier this month, said employers must be sensitive to potential conflicts and establish appropriate policies and educate managers.

“Do the right thing and address it before the government steps in and says you need to do whatever,” she said. “Because that way you can say, "Hey, we're trying to protect our employees regardless of what the government is telling us do. Why? Because it's the right thing to do and it's the reasonable thing to do.' It's a good, strong defense.”

“Eventually, you're probably going to get one of these types of claims. And when you do, you hope like heck you've done everything you can reasonably do” in advance, said Ms. Bonner, who encouraged municipalities to have a separate anti-retaliation policy and to have their policies and procedures reviewed by a knowledgeable labor attorney.

Elizabeth Capek, Chicago-based vice president and claim client manager at Munich Reinsurance America Inc., focused on issues related to excessive force cases involving police departments, including the use of video.

In a case involving a police officer of an unnamed department who shot a suspect who fled police after acting suspiciously in a convenience store, Ms. Capek said video from two police cars was crucial in supporting the police officer.

“During the investigation, they realized there was another cop car and he was stopped at a different angle. Once they viewed that second camera angle, they saw what that person was doing. That individual wasn't just stopped. He stopped to turn, he had his hand in his pocket, it was coming back out.”

Videos taken by police and individuals have factored into many recent cases of alleged excessive force by police.

“People have to realize that some of this public video that you see is very limiting and it isn't the whole story,” she said.

Stratford, Connecticut, Police Chief Patrick Ridenhour said it's important to stay in contact with local media and make statements quickly following a controversial incident, such as police shooting a suspect.

But the police chief had some reservations about several police departments' moves to equip officers with body cameras.

“There are some types of body cameras that will give you a huge view of everything,” he said. “But that doesn't necessarily mean that's what the officer saw during the course of the incident. The thing with body cameras is that it's going to give some idea of what happened, but body cameras can also make people very impersonal. You have this body camera on and now you go back to the 1968 "Dragnet' days of, "Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts.' In law enforcement, you want your officers to be able to positively engage with people.”