The opening bell sounded Tuesday morning in Judge Colleen Sterne’s courtroom for what promises to be a bloody slugfest between city officials and a former police dispatcher suing for wrongful termination. The dispatcher, named Bridget Bryden, a two-decade veteran of the Santa Barbara Police Department, claims police brass fired her in March 2016 after she blew the whistle on their decision to drastically reduce testing and hiring standards for new dispatchers in order to fill vacancies. Bryden said she had warned Deputy Police Chief Frank Mannix and her supervisor Lt. Marylinda Arroyo ― who at the time were serving under Interim Police Chief John Crombach ― that dropping the passing test score from 90 to 65 was not just unwise but illegal. In response, she claims, they launched an internal investigation against her and forced her out.
“When she stepped up to do the right thing, the city retaliated and fired her,” Bryden’s attorney Jonathan Miller told the jury Tuesday. “It’s just that simple.” Miller described Bryden, who’s married to a city firefighter, as a 24-year police-department employee who had an exemplary record. She’d been named Employee of the Month multiple times, he said, and she was the only dispatcher to ever receive the Thomas Guerry Award, the city’s highest recognition of bravery and valor among law enforcement. The internal investigation that ostensibly led to her firing was bogus, Miller claimed. Bryden had been accused of laughing at a racist comment made by another dispatcher to a Spanish-speaking 9-1-1 caller. She simply didn’t do it, Miller said. “She never would. That’s not who she is.”
Miller also pointed to other instances at that time of the department retaliating against its officers for speaking out. After Lt. Dan McGrew and Detective Greg Hons filed complaints with CalOSHA over working conditions at the Figueroa Street station, which resulted in citations against the city, they went from receiving glowing performance evaluations to decidedly negative ones. “What happened to my client was not an isolated incident, but was the pattern and practice of the city,” said Miller, whose law firm Nye, Peabody, Stirling, Hale & Miller has an impeccable record in lawsuits similar to Bryden’s against local police departments. “The evidence will show the city does not value whistleblowers,” he said. Bryden is asking for nearly $750,000 in lost earning damages.
Assistant City Attorney Tom Shapiro countered that Bryden was never fired. Instead, he insisted, she quit. After a tense meeting with Arroyo during which she was told she was the subject of an investigation, Shapiro said Bryden “dropped the mic” — dropping her keys, badge, and parking pass on Arroyo’s desk — and walked out, which left the dispatch center shorthanded and put the public at risk.
Shapiro said he’d prove through witness testimony that Bryden did in fact laugh at the racist comment and that text messages between her and her union will reveal she formally resigned. Moreover, he said, Bryden couldn’t be considered a whistleblower because there was nothing for her to blow the whistle over. The softening of new hire testing standards is a strategy being used in police departments across the state to address a shortage in dispatchers. Shapiro asked the jury to keep an open mind during the trial and be suspicious of Bryden. “There will be a lot of explanations for a lot of bad behavior,” he said.