Tom Radzyminski, former White House Marine guard and highly decorated LAPD officer, and wife Kellene Brooks, also an LAPD officer, were tired of the rat race in the big city. In 1995, they lateralled to the Santa Maria Police Department in search of a better quality of life. While Radzyminski received stacks of commendations and awards from LAPD, including the Police Medal for Bravery for wresting a loaded handgun from a suicidal suspect, the cleaner air, cheaper housing and less stressful living along the Central Coast seemed like a dream come true. Radzyminski and Brooks settled into their patrol positions in Santa Maria, and to no one’s surprise excelled as they had in Los Angeles.
Then, one ill-fated p.m. shift during the evening of July 25, 1997, Radzyminski and a fellow officer became involved in an altercation with a resisting suspect who was attempting to dispose of illegal drugs. During the melee Radzyminski struck his head and shoulder on the pavement. He shook off his injuries and gave chase to the suspect in his unit, eventually apprehending him. During the altercation, an Explorer Scout in Radzyminski’s care also sustained minor injuries. Radzyminski went to Urgent Care with his Explorer. When asked by a doctor about his injuries, he said he was “O.K.”, in order to attend to his Explorer and finish his arrest report.
Later that shift, Radzyminski was told by his sergeant not to go out in the field except in the event of an officer safety issue due to his visible injuries. As fate would have it, at around 12:30 a.m. a call for assistance was broadcast on the radio. The officer involved was Kellene Brooks. Officers hearing the broadcast thought that she was getting physically accosted. Three officers, including Radzyminski, ran to their units. Radzyminski backed out of his parking spot, concentrating on the radio broadcast to learn of Brooks’ location. While doing so, his unit apparently made contact with a small mailbox, causing minor damage to the unit and negligible damage to the mailbox. Radzyminski was unaware of this slight collision. As Radzyminski began driving to the scene, the situation was broadcast as “Code 4″, so he returned to the station. When he emerged from his vehicle he viewed the damage to the unit with disbelief. He waited for his sergeant to return from his wife’s call and immediately reported the damage, accepting full responsibility as the officer in charge of the unit. After consulting with his sergeant, Radzyminski traced the route of his earlier call regarding the resisting suspect as he felt the damage may have occurred during this earlier call.
When their shifts were completed, Radzyminski and his wife departed for their annual vacation. Days later, a lieutenant found the obvious damage on and around the mailbox consisting of a paint transfer and some tail light fragments. Upon viewing the damage, the chief announced that “there must be more to this,” concluding that Radzyminski was somehow withholding information as to the cause of the damage despite his acceptance of responsibility. The chief had his staff look into the matter further. This preliminary inquiry consisted of a commander essentially telling Radzyminski that if he could “clear the matter up” no discipline would follow. Radzyminski was unable to do so because he simply did not know the cause of the damage. The commander sent Radzyminski to see the internal affairs lieutenant across the hall. The lieutenant activated a surreptitious micro-cassette recorder upon Radzyminski’s entry into the office. The lieutenant questioned Radzyminski without informing him that the was the subject of an investigation. Radzyminski then told the lieutenant what happened to the best of his recollection, but still could not identify exactly how the damage had occurred. Radzyminski was told that he must have struck the mailbox, and he immediately stated again that he would accept responsibility for the damage.
After a perfunctory investigation, which not surprisingly parroted the initial finding of the chief, Radzyminski was terminated for alleged dishonesty.
The City of Santa Maria then proceeded to deny Radzyminski unemployment benefits. In support of its position, the city provided a lengthy denunciation of Radzyminski set forth on letterhead from the city manager’s office. The administrative law judge hearing the matter issued a decision that questioned the city’s motives, and granted Radzyminski his full benefits. Howard Liberman of Silver, Hadden & Silver represented Radzyminski at that hearing.
Radzyminski’s battle with the City of Santa Maria was far from over. City manager Tim Ness was designated by the MOU between the police association and the city to hear Radzyminski’s appeal. However, Ness made it clear that he did not want to hear the case, and unilaterally chose a former member of law enforcement management inexperienced in such matters to preside over the matter. When Bill Hadden, counsel for Radzyminski, advised the city manager that the MOU was a negotiated agreement that could not be arbitrarily changed at the city manager’s whim, Ness still refused to revoke his selection. With the backing of the PORAC Legal Defense Fund, Hadden and Liberman then brought court action to prevent the city from choosing its own hearing officer in violation of the MOU. Furthermore, in light of the indication of bias by Ness stemming from the city’s response in the unemployment hearing and its belligerent insistence on being able to choose its own hearing officer, Radzyminski’s counsel asked that Ness be precluded from hearing the case, and that the parties be required to agree to an independent factfinder. A Superior Court judge ruled that Ness could not pick his own hearing officer, and required him to hear the case. However, the court refused to find that Ness was sufficiently biased so as to demand his recusal, as the City’s papers in the unemployment hearing were purportedly drafted by the assistant city manager on the city manager’s letterhead, which, the court said, failed to prove actual bias by Ness himself.
In a three day hearing held in March 1998, Ness predictably proceeded to uphold the decision of his chief of police. Immediately thereafter, Hadden, who represented Radzyminski at that hearing, filed a Petition for Writ of Mandate in Superior Court to overturn the city’s termination of Radzyminski.
Finally, on January 5, 2000, Radzyminski received the first impartial review of his termination. Superior Court Judge Zel Canter granted the Petition, citing specific unfair findings by Ness as the basis for rejecting the city’s decision. In his slanted analysis, Ness found Radzyminski to lack credibility for two preposterous reasons. First, he claimed that Radzyminski’s assertion that his lieutenant had violated Penal Code Section 632 by surreptitiously recording his internal affairs interview was “a lie.” Second, Ness alleged that Radzyminski’s statement to the doctor that he was “OK”, made in an effort to get back to work after he had been struck on the head, was a grievous act of dishonesty.
In exercising his independent judgment on the record of the proceedings, Judge Canter found those findings to have no merit. Radzyminski’s assertion that the lieutenant had violated Penal Code Section 632 was a legal conclusion he was entitled to make, and had nothing to do with dishonesty. Moreover, as was vigorously stated in oral argument at the hearing, Radzyminski’s decision to return to duty under difficult circumstances was no different than that of San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young fighting to get back into a game after being battered by defensive linemen. Judge Canter said, “That’s a good analogy because that’s exactly what was occurring. It’s the same thing.” The judge found that the city manager essentially had taken things out of context and “turned them on their heads.”
As a direct response to the manner in which Ness conducted Radzyminski’s hearing, the Santa Maria Police Officers’ Association, represented by Robert Wexler, of Silver, Hadden & Silver, negotiated a greatly improved disciplinary procedure calling for review by a neutral arbitrator for disciplinary actions in excess of a 40-hour suspension.
Radzyminski and his wife were elated by the decision, and are hopeful that their two year nightmare has finally come to an end. “Bill Hadden, Howard Liberman, and Rob Wexler were constantly fighting for me and our association members despite enormous obstacles. I am extremely grateful for the resources provided to them by the PORAC Legal Defense Fund. I also wish to thank my wonderful wife for her dedication and support throughout this ordeal.”