As the Seattle Police Department’s attorneys would have her known, Sgt. Ella Elias is a conniving malcontent hoping to be made a millionaire with taxpayer money.
Certainly, the department’s attorneys say, the veteran squad leader wasn’t bullied for outing cronyism on the part of an assistant police chief. Sgt. Elias’ key supporters – her former supervisors, since sidelined by Chief Kathleen O’Toole as well – just have it all wrong, too.
That’s the story SPD is selling.
King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North bought none of it.
“Quite frankly, I’m surprised she’s still working for the Seattle Police Department given the incredibly hostile environment she was subjected to,” North said from the bench Friday as he shot down SPD’s request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Elias.
North cleared the way for Elias to take her claims to King County jury as two of her former commanders – Capt. David Proudfoot and Lt. Steve Strand – are poised to sue as well. They claim they were attacked for trying to protect Elias, and the department. Quite frankly, I’m surprised she’s still working for the Seattle Police Department given the incredibly hostile environment she was subjected to
Proudfoot and Strand claim O’Toole ruined their careers after they argued against a punitive transfer forced on Elias. Elias says she was retaliated against after complaining about preferential treatment given to friends of then-Assistant Chief Nick Metz, the former head of SPD’s patrol operations.
Judge: City is making excuses for punishing whistleblower
Elias, Proudfoot and Strand were rising stars in the department’s South Precinct, which encompasses much of South Seattle, including the Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill and the stadium district. The area is one of the most diverse in the nation, and rampant crime has afflicted several neighborhoods within the precinct boundaries.
After an exemplary career as the only female patrol sergeant in the precinct, Elias claims she was targeted after raising concerns that Metz had handpicked four friends for a lucrative, prized overtime duty. Elias sued the department in November 2014, claiming she was harassed and retaliated against.
Her lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt by Elias to circumvent accountability for her own conduct and failure to satisfy reasonable performance expectations SPD holds for supervisors
Writing the court, Jessie Harris, a private attorney representing SPD in the matter, described it as “ironic” that Elias claims she was discriminated against after being cited following an internal investigation.
“Her lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt by Elias to circumvent accountability for her own conduct and failure to satisfy reasonable performance expectations SPD holds for supervisors,” Harris said in court papers.
SPD had hoped North would kill Elias’ lawsuit by finding her lawsuit meritless. Such an outcome would undercut any legal action from Strand and Proudfoot, who’ve both given the city notice that they are preparing to sue.
Instead, North, with strength unusual in a preliminary court hearing, described Elias as a whistleblower who was retaliated against by SPD. The department’s explanation as to why Elias was punished, the judge said, was a pretext for the retaliation.
“I think it’s obvious that it’s a pretext,” North said from the bench Friday. “I don’t think there’s really any question that that’s what’s going on here.”
The claims put forward by Strand and Proudfoot shift the allegations against Metz to O’Toole and Deputy Chief Carmen Best, the department’s second-in-command. Metz left Seattle for Aurora, Colorado, where he is chief of police. Strand and Proudfoot – both of whom led South Precinct in recent years – claim O’Toole and Best went after them for standing up for Elias.
Spokespersons for the Seattle Police Department and Seattle City Attorney’s Office, which represents the city’s departments in legal actions, declined to discuss allegations made by Strand and Proudfoot.
The gravy train of overtime
Elias, now 49, had been under relentless pressure since early 2012, when she complained of what she saw as unfair, preferential treatment of several officers close to Metz, according to statements made to the court. Elias faced embarrassment when she was sent home during an investigation later found to be groundless.
Having joined the SPD 23 years ago after an 11-year career in the Army, Elias is one of few women serving in the department’s patrol division. Women account for about 14 percent of the 1,189 line officers and detectives employed by the department as whole. In 2013, only 17 of the department’s 144 sergeants are women.
Elias, long the only woman patrol sergeant at South Precinct, had an exemplary record. Then, four years ago, she complained about favoritism in overtime assignments.
Beginning in late 2011, Seattle police launched an program aimed at stemming violence in the city’s nightclubs. In South Precinct, the emphasis meant four officers were paid overtime on Friday and Saturday nights to patrol clubs.
Writing the court, Elias’ attorney Julie Kays said Metz handpicked the officers “for the gravy train of overtime.” Kays described the officers as close friends of Metz who regularly drop the assistant chief’s name around the precinct office.
Elias learned the overtime opportunity had not been opened to other officers as required by city policy and the officers’ union contract. Elias reported her concerns to Strand and Proudfoot, and ultimately won out – the nightclub patrol was opened to all the precinct’s officers.
Writing the court, Kays said the officers who’d been enjoying the work then turned on Elias. They refused to recognize her authority, walked out of meetings she was leading and put a threatening poster near her locker, according to the lawsuit.
The insubordination was supported by some of Elias’ superiors, one of whom filed a complaint against Elias on the officers’ behalf. Elias was sent home from work and placed on leave in an instance Kays described as an “extraordinary break in protocol” that chipped away at the sergeant’s reputation.
Kays said Elias alone was disrespected by the officers after she raised concerns about the overtime scheme. She was the only woman in the chain of command at the time, and was left to fend for herself.
Sergeant: ‘We needed to change’
Like Proudfoot, Elias describes herself as a strong supporter of reforms pushed on SPD in recent years by the Justice Department.
A Justice Department civil rights investigation found Seattle police frequently used excessive force. Though investigators stopped short of accusing the department of racist policing, the Justice Department won an agreement from SPD to implement reforms meant to combat police brutality. A federal monitor is currently overseeing the effort.
As a gay person and a woman, I know what it is like to be treated unfairly, to be treated differently just because of who I am
Questioned by Harris during a deposition, Elias said she was accused of berating one of Metz’ friends after she overheard him disparaging the new use-of-force rules.
The officer, Elias said, was talking about keeping “the old school way of doing things” alive in South Seattle by refusing to run body cameras or follow the new rules. Elias rebuked him.
“I said you can either progress with us as an organization or you can stay behind, but the officers are going to follow the policy and I’m going to be sure they follow the policy,” Elias told the SPD attorney.
“He felt that I was talking down to him because I corrected him there,” she continued. “I’m telling you right now I’ll do it every time. I was happy Department of Justice came in. We needed to change.”
In a statement to the court, Elias denied discriminating against African-American officers or members of any other minority group serving the department.
“As a gay person and a woman, I know what it is like to be treated unfairly, to be treated differently just because of who I am,” she said. “I would never do that to anyone because I know what it feels like.”
‘You’re setting me up to fail’
Elias had been temporarily transferred to a desk job in S2013 after the anti-discrimination complaint was filed against her. The allegations were found to be meritless, and Elias was returned to South Precinct after six months away.
Not long after she returned to South Precinct, Elias was subjected to another anti-discrimination investigation prompted by one of the four officers close to Metz. That time she was accused of telling her supervisor, Strand, she didn’t want minority officers on her squad.
At the time, Strand was considering placing a minority officer with attendance problems on her squad. Strand hoped Elias would either make the officer improve or build a case for her removal.
Questioned by investigators, Elias said she’d just been through a discrimination-related internal investigation when she made that comment because she was afraid of being subjected to another retaliatory investigation.
“I said, ‘I think it would look worse if I start documenting things and the folks who filed a complaint against me before are gonna see that I’m documenting things against another minority,’” Elias told an SPD investigator, recalling the conversation with Strand. “I said, ‘You’re setting me up to fail. Plain and simple.’”
Interviewed by Elias’ attorney, Strand said Elias later came to him with names of several minority officers she wanted on her squad. There was no evidence Elias tried to keep anyone from working with her.
Strand found nothing offensive about Elias’ comments. She was expressing concerns about taking on a known problem employee, he said, nothing more.
Strand said Metz spoke with him about Elias at least five times while the investigation was ongoing. Strand cautioned the assistant chief not push Elias out.
“It would divide the South Precinct, she would likely be exonerated, and it looked like harassment,” Strand said in court papers. “More importantly it was retaliation against Elias because she had already filed her notice of intent to file suit against the city.”
The investigator, a longtime internal investigations sergeant, recommended Elias receive additional training on the department’s anti-discrimination policies. After SPD became aware Elias was considering a lawsuit, though, an assistant city attorney told the investigator to make the discipline recommendation more robust.
3 careers shaken
Elias was transferred out of South Precinct at Chief O’Toole’s direction. Doing so, O’Toole asserted Elias had “created tensions in the South Precinct.”
“I believe the South Precinct would be better served by having a new sergeant,” O’Toole said in a reprimand issued Jan. 20.
Neither O’Toole nor the investigator noted that Elias previously raised concerns about favoritism that had benefited her accusers. Best, in a sworn statement, said that “neither retaliation nor discrimination played any role in the actions undertaken against Sgt. Elias.”
Elias’ forced transfer drew objections from the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Strand and Proudfoot.
The captain wrote a lengthy email to Best, O’Toole and Metz warning that the transfer was retaliatory. The transfer went forward anyway. Elias was humiliated.
Proudfoot, a 26-year SPD veteran formerly assigned to the department’s Office of Professional Accountability, claims O’Toole admonished him for sending the email.
“Chief O’Toole told me she ‘didn’t want to have to move another commander out of the South Precinct,” Proudfoot said in court papers.
According to Proudfoot’s account, the chief made good on her threat in March. Proudfoot was involuntarily transferred eight months after he began what he believed would be a years-long assignment.
While leading South Precinct, Proudfoot implemented a program that saw officers visit each classroom at the 14 elementary schools in the precinct. Officers also supported Rainier Beach High School’s homecoming football game and dance, the often troubled school’s first in 25 years. Perhaps most importantly, the precinct saw violent crime rates fall during Proudfoot’s tenure.
“The only reason why Proudfoot was removed from his position at South Precinct was to retaliate against him and send him and other staff … the message that this is what happens when you speak out against an unlawful practice,” Kays said in Proudfoot’s tort claim, a warning potential litigants are required to file before suing a public entity like the city of Seattle.
Captain: Chief O’Toole wanted us gone
In a statement to the court, Proudfoot said he had been under consideration for a promotion to assistant chief. His support for Elias cost him that opportunity, he said, as well as his command.
“It is clear to me that O’Toole wanted those who spoke out against the Elias involuntary transfer gone from South Precinct,” the captain said.
Stand contends his support of Elias cost him his leadership role at South Precinct as well as a chance to head the department’s harbor patrol. He was demoted and transferred to West Seattle in January by Best in a move he contends cost him $50,000 in annual pay.
Writing the court, Elias recounted a more personal snub she claims the chief delivered.
At her new commander’s urging, Elias was honored with the “chief’s award” for her actions during a recent hostage situation. Usually, there’s pomp and ceremony as the chief bestows the award. O’Toole didn’t show up for Elias, who was quietly given her award by her lieutenant.
Elias’ lawsuit is ongoing. Strand and Proudfoot will be able to sue in late December, should they choose to do so.
Seattlepi.com reporter Levi Pulkkinen can be reached at 206-448-8348 or firstname.lastname@example.org.