Lawsuits follow Arroyo Grande police chief

2 departments under Steve Annibali’s leadership have been accused of unequal treatment

clambert@thetribunenews.comMarch 14, 2012 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that a former Arroyo Grande police officer sued over a physical fitness exam he was required to take; it was actually a fitness-for-duty exam.

By December, Senior Officer Michelle Cota had amassed a long list of complaints against the Arroyo Grande Police Department and her boss, Chief Steve Annibali.

Cota contended that overtime shifts and on-the-job training were denied, watch commander coverage opportunities were withheld, and she was sometimes overloaded with calls for service while male officers were allowed to remain at the police station, according to a lawsuit she filed against the department and Annibali.

The lawsuit, making its way through San Luis Obispo Superior Court, only represents one side of the dispute, and Arroyo Grande officials have reaffirmed their confidence in Annibali.

But the lawsuit is not the first to claim disparate treatment, harassment or discrimination by either Annibali or one of his top administrators, Cmdr. John Hough.

In the past two years, two other lawsuits have been filed by current or former Arroyo Grande employees.

Since then, Annibali has been dropped from one suit, while Cota’s lawsuit, and one filed in 2010 by Officer Kimberely Martin, which also alleges discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation, are ongoing. A third suit against the city was filed by a former male officer over a fitness-for-duty exam he was required to take.

A decade earlier, two lawsuits and a charge of discrimination were filed by female officers alleging discrimination and retaliation while Annibali was chief of the Breckenridge Police Department in Colorado.

Hough, then a sergeant in Breckenridge, was mentioned in one of the lawsuits. Neither he nor Annibali was named as a defendant in the suits.

Since then, those lawsuits have been settled. Annibali left Breckenridge and served seven years as chief of the Ephrata Police Department in Pennsylvania — where no lawsuits were filed by employees against him — before moving to lead Arroyo Grande’s department.

Hough, who was hired in Arroyo Grande in 2009, left several months before his contract was up at the end of March to move back to Colorado.

Since news of the Arroyo Grande lawsuits surfaced, some critics — such as some former employees of the department — have emerged and suggested that Annibali has created a disparate management style at the department, and voiced concerns about the chief’s history.

At least one, possibly two, private investigators have been hired to dig into Annibali’s past, according to Annibali and others.

City Manager Steve Adams was not aware of the Breckenridge lawsuits before hiring Annibali, as the chief wasn’t named in the litigation.

The city of Arroyo Grande contracted with Jim Gardiner, former San Luis Obispo police chief and a licensed investigator, to conduct a comprehensive background investigation, while Adams did a parallel background check.

Adams said he couldn’t comment on the results of the investigation, though he acknowledged he was not aware of the lawsuits.

“Both investigations confirmed that Chief Annibali has had a dynamic and distinguished career; no issues of concern were identified and what emerged was the portrait of a skilled, fair and honest man,” Adams wrote in an email to The Tribune. “The city of Arroyo Grande is very fortunate to attract a chief of his caliber. Chief Annibali has established himself as a leader in police ethics. This attempt to smear the chief’s exemplary reputation of public service is unconscionable.”

Several current and former council members also expressed confidence in Annibali when contacted by The Tribune.

“I’m privileged to confidential information about the lawsuits that I can’t talk about,” said Councilman Joe Costello, referring to the litigation against Arroyo Grande. “Once everything comes out, Steve Annibali is going to be just fine, there’s nothing that he’s done wrong.”

The chief’s background

Annibali started his law enforcement career in 1978 as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. Two years later, he joined the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office, where he served as a deputy, sergeant and lieutenant before moving to the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, near Denver, from 1992-97.

From 1997-2000, Annibali led the Breckenridge Police Department, where he “re-engineered a stagnated agency into a progressive, professional and dynamic team,” according to his résumé. Before coming to Arroyo Grande in 2007, Annibali served for seven years as police chief in Ephrata, overseeing 31 sworn officers.

In Arroyo Grande, he oversees 26 sworn officer positions. The Arroyo Grande City Council unanimously voted to confirm his appointment July 10, 2007.

In 2009, after two of his commanders retired, Annibali said he decided to hire two commanders on a three-year contract, and selected Hough, who had worked for Annibali in Breckenridge, from a list of final candidates.

Annibali also serves on the Professional Standards, Image and Ethics Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and is a guest lecturer and instructor on the topic of ethics.

He couldn’t comment on current litigation, citing a city policy not to discuss ongoing lawsuits. Such a policy is universally followed by public agencies.

“I’m very proud to stand on my record of 34 years,” he said in a phone interview from a weeklong California Police Chiefs Association symposium in Sacramento. “We hold people accountable everywhere I’ve been, and that’s not always popular.”

Lawsuits in Breckenridge

Two lawsuits and a charge of discrimination were filed against the town of Breckenridge while Annibali served as its chief. One of the lawsuits, filed in 2001 after Annibali had taken a job in Pennsylvania, puts him in a positive light. In October 1999, the plaintiff, former Officer Rebecca Johnson, complained to Annibali that she was being treated differently than her male counterparts, according to the lawsuit.

After that, the discrimination and harassment lessened, but increased again after Annibali moved to Pennsylvania, according to Johnson’s suit. Johnson’s suit settled in 2002 for $50,000, including about $22,000 in attorney’s fees.

Another lawsuit, filed in 1999 by former Officer Rosie Trindle, alleged she was subjected to a hostile work environment and an ongoing pattern of discrimination based on her gender.

The suit doesn’t mention Annibali but alleges that Hough, then a sergeant (and not a named defendant) didn’t take any action when Trindle complained of sexual harassment after a co-worker had made an inappropriate comment.

Trindle declined to comment on the suit, citing the settlement she’d signed. Hough could not be reached for comment. Annibali said the officer who made the comment was disciplined, and that Trindle was unhappy with a performance evaluation and raise she had received.

In her lawsuit, Trindle alleged she received a negative performance evaluation because she had complained of sexual harassment. The lawsuit settled in October 2000 for $22,500.

In 1998, a charge of discrimination was filed against the department; a subsequent lawsuit did not appear to have been filed. The charge, filed by a civilian community services officer, alleges that she was subjected to unwelcome remarks that were sexual in nature by male officers. After she reported the incidents to Annibali, the community services officer claimed, she was denied a vacation leave request and received a written reprimand.

Annibali said he recalled receiving a complaint about officers’ foul language, and said he regularly instructs officers to use appropriate language.

“I did discipline male officers for using foul language in the workplace,” he said.

Lawsuits in Arroyo Grande

Since summer 2010, three lawsuits have been filed against Arroyo Grande. Two were brought by the female officers. A third was from a male sergeant who alleged the city and Annibali subjected him to an unwarranted fitness exam and eventually fired him after he raised concerns about various issues to ensure a safe working environment. The city and Annibali later received absolute immunity by a U.S. District Court and were dropped from the suit.

Officer Martin’s suit, filed in September 2010, alleged a pattern of unequal actions, such as giving preferential treatment to male officers while overlooking female officers for promotion. Cota alleged she was discriminated against and that her complaints instigated additional mistreatment.

Separate hearings are set for April in San Luis Obispo Superior Court for an update on Martin’s and Cota’s cases.

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