By Geghard ARAKELIAN
A group of American Armenian police officers with the Glendale Police Department –Vahak Mardikian, Tigran Topadzhikyan, Robert Parseghian, John Balian and Benny Simonzad – in January filed a discrimination suit against the GPD and about 30 individual employees of the department. While the trial is pending, their lawyer Carney Shegerian and city officials reflected on how events progressed to this point and offered expectations of how the lawsuit will be resolved.
The group of officers – four active members and one former member – allege they were treated differently due to their ethnic backgrounds.
“I talked to them all for a period of time and it became real clear to me that they all had extremely strong stories and evidence about what had gone on in Glendale,” said Shegerian. “As a group and individually they just described the differential treatment: being treated as second class citizens.”
Shegerian said his clients claim that in many cases, for example, disciplinary measures for unruly conduct were always harsher for them.
“I’ve never seen a case with stronger evidence of discrimination, harassment and retaliation as these police officers have,” said Shegerian.
Recently the group of officers with the help of their lawyer filed a First Amendment complaint about 90 pages long, which is double the length of the original complaint. The document highlights the sort of discrimination the officers have experienced during their time with the GPD, said Shegerian.
“It’s eye opening. I’m surprised that Glendale’s response hasn’t been more positive. I’m surprised it hasn’t been more open and introspective but I guess that’s how entities like that work sometimes,” said Shegerian.
According to the lawyer, an example of the GPD’s discriminatory practices can be found in comparing the number of Armenian officers in the department to the inhabiting population.
“When you look at the statistics and the general workforce, Armenians make up 49 to51 percent, depending on whose statistics you’re looking at,” said Shegerian. “For there to be only 6% Armenians on the force and never any Armenians in any managerial position, the odds of that happening are thousands to one, if that. For that to naturally happen is highly improbable.”
The lawyer pointed out the integrity of his clients both as GPD employees and people.
“When the jury sees my clients and how honorable they are and how hardworking they are…they’re going to understand that this is real and what is [actually] going on. It’s something that should have been stopped a long time ago,” said Shegerian.
In response to a press release drafted by Shegerian’s law office, which highlights the same statistical analysis, Glendale Police Chief Ron De Pompa disagreed with the lawyer’s argument.
“He’s highly naïve and significantly misinformed,” said De Pompa. “We do not have people retiring or leaving in hordes. It’s been very piecemeal over the years. So your opportunity for growth is minimal.”
According to city officials, the GPD promotes its cadet program and Explorer program to the Armenian community. The department also has specialized recruitment and language testing for Armenian candidates.
Glendale police staff has met with and maintained contact with several Armenian organizations, one of which is the Western Diocese, and have even met with the archbishop, an Armenian religious leader who oversees the majority of Armenian churches. The GPD also maintains contact with Armenian media outlets such as “USA Armenian Life,” “Massis,” “Oragark” and Horizon Television.
At the beginning of the decade, the GPD started with five Armenian officers and today employs 19.
“We are absolutely committed to that diversity. We simply can’t do [our jobs] without it,” said De Pompa. “While I can’t speak whether any specific allegation is true or not true…in a general sense my firm belief is that our environment is free of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.”
According to GPD officials, currently 12 of the 25 members of the Explorer scouts are of Armenian descent.
“These things don’t happen by accident. They take a lot of work and creativity. They take partnering with our community,” said De Pompa. “They are solid evidence to this city’s commitment for making a diverse workforce.”
But to Shegerian, the department’s programs specifically geared toward garnering the attention of Armenians in the community are a relatively recent addition.
“They [GPD] have very recently started those programs,” argued Shegerian. “It’s not just a one step process for you to sign up and say that Armenians are welcome to come.”
According to Shegerian most people in Glendale are not in touch with the department, don’t have a perception of the city organization and “are turned off to the Glendale police department and for good reason” said Shegerian.
For the lawyer, the department’s involvement with the community doesn’t resolve what his clients have alleged to be discriminatory practices from within.
“Just holding up that sign saying, ‘Armenians welcome’ doesn’t resolve that [discriminatory] problem,” said Shegerian.
De Pompa stressed that a testament to the department’s willingness to work with those of different ethnic backgrounds can be seen in the GPD’s ranks.
“We value diversity and a diverse workforce and we work diligently to create a workforce that reflects our community and that is part-and-parcel with the allegations,” ascertained De Pompa.
According to the police chief, the GPD is comprised of 257 sworn employees. One hundred of them are bilingual and represent the Spanish, Korean, Armenian and Pilipino dialects.
“The American Armenian candidates are few and far between and that has historically been a problem for us,” said De Pompa.
The police chief stressed that the GPD recruits an array of diverse employees and draws candidates not just from Glendale.
“Our recruitment poll does not just come from Glendale. We draw from all over Southern California. Take a look at Montebello. They have one Armenian officer; or Burbank, Pasadena or any other community,” said De Pompa.
Of the 19 American Armenians officers on the force, four are sergeants and of those sergeants three are on a promotional list, which could make them lieutenants.
But Shegerian speaks to the contrary, claiming that Armenian officers on a promotional list do not counter claims of discrimination.
“How come they’re not lieutenants yet? Officers are going to explain and will testify that they should have been lieutenants by now,” said Shegerian. “I would hope that at some point that the police department can take a realistic view of how they treat my clients and how they treated them and make efforts to look at [the lawsuit] from a different perspective,” said Shegerian.
Some of the allegations made by the officers have prompted internal investigations.
“There are a few allegations contained in the lawsuit that we were never made aware of, that were news to us. And as a result we are certainly looking into these allegations,” said De Pompa. “Rest assured, number one, the department has a clear and effective process for complaints by officers or members of the community and when we receive allegations we will diligently conduct an investigation to determine the facts.”
One allegation contained in the lawsuit is of a demotion that never took place, said De Pompa.
“When people bring allegations we have to set the record straight,” said De Pompa. “When it’s in a lawsuit form the venue is the court and so we welcome the opportunity to vigorously defend ourselves.”
Shegerian argues that what the city organization claims to be a false allegation is actually a game of semantics.
“John Bailian was put into another position 10 days after he gave testimony on another case on how Armenians are discriminated [against],” said Shegerian. “All of a sudden they didn’t have funds for him anymore in that position. The reality was that they hired someone else to do the job. They may want to say that there wasn’t a demotion…Evidence is going to show that they are lying,” said Shegerian.
Speaking in favor of the GPD, City Manager Jim Starbird gave insight as to the integrity of the police department and the city’s response in general when it comes to discrimination, harassment or retaliation in the workplace.
“We have mandatory training programs on sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation,” said Starbird. “We train it. We work it. We believe it. So when a lawsuit like this comes out what we do is guard against being defensive, but it is hurtful and disappointing.”
The city manager emphasized approaching the lawsuit objectively.
“We’d be sticking our head in the sand if we said that there aren’t tensions between different culture groups in the community,” said Starbird. “In the community we have a workforce that values the cultural differences in our workplace.”
Both De Pompa and Starbird also argue in favor of people’s right to complain in the workplace.
“It’s kind of like the old adage: I may disagree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it,” said Starbird.
“We completely understand and recognize their right to bring forth allegations or lawsuits if they find it necessary. We absolutely recognize that right and we have absolutely reiterated our stance on retaliation,” agreed De Pompa.
The city manager also explored the notion that no organization is perfect.
“Mistakes can be made to that extent. We do have a policy of looking into complaints. We have avenues where people can voice their concerns,” said Starbird. “We would hope and invite people to reserve their judgment on both sides of this issue until the issues are presented and worked through in the litigation process.”