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City of Santa Barbara Loses Whistleblower Suit

Ordered to Pay Former Dispatcher $1.28 Million

Judge Colleen Sterne | Credit: Paul Wellman File

A Santa Barbara jury concluded that the City of Santa Barbara should pay former dispatcher Bridget Bryden $1.28 million in economic damages sustained when she was terminated in March 2016 shortly after she’d voiced concerns to her superior that reductions to the qualifications required for new dispatchers posed a health and safety risk to officers in the field and the general public. At the time, the police department was grappling with a serious shortage in dispatchers. To help increase the number of candidates, departmental brass reduced the test scores required for new applicants from 90 to 65. 

At issue throughout much of the jury trial that took place over the course of nearly a month in the courtroom of Judge Colleen Sterne was whether Bryden, a 24-year veteran of the dispatch crew who at one time had won the Thomas Guerry Award for her service, quit or was fired. The jury heard much conflicting evidence on both sides. According to Tom Shapiro, who argued the case for the City of Santa Barbara, the jurors he spoke with ultimately concluded it didn’t matter whether she quit or not; they were upset that after 24 years in the department, Bryden was not allowed to speak to then acting chief Crombach about getting her job back. They were also struck, Shapiro recounted, by the timing of the termination and the speed with which it was executed. 

Ultimately, the jurors voted 11-1 that the city terminated Bryden for voicing her complaint about the reduction in standards, that the city’s training standards for dealing with whistleblower complaints was inadequate, and that had Bryden not voiced such concerns, she would not have been terminated. The jury rejected arguments, however, that the department retaliated against whistleblowers as part of a pattern and practice. As a result, Bryden was awarded back-pay for the time she lost from the day of termination to the day she would have been eligible to retire six years later. Had the jury found that whistleblowers were retaliated against as a general rule, as Bryden’s attorney Jonathan Miller alleged, she would have been eligible for emotional damages and pain and suffering compensation, as well. 

Photo: Paul Wellman/file photoEx-police dispatcher Bridget Bryden claims former deputy chief Frank Mannix, pictured, was among those who forced her out after she protested a lowered passing score on the dispatch test.

Bryden first voiced concerns in February 2016 to her supervisor Lieutenant Marylinda Arroyo. In March, Arroyo notified Bryden she was the subject of an internal affairs investigation. Bryden had allegedly laughed at an ethnically charged joke made by a subordinate and did not object to the comment as she should have as a person in a position of authority, 

What happened later remains the subject of debate. According to City Hall, Bryden announced she was quitting and placed her badge and her keys on the table. According to Bryden, she never said she was quitting even as she placed her keys and badge on the table, but insisted that she objected to the investigation. Under either scenario, she sought to appeal the termination with the support of the police officers union, but when she tried to take the matter to the chief, she was rebuffed.

Bryden’s attorney Miller argued that retaliation was a common practice under then deputy chief Frank Mannix, who ran the department’s day-to-day operations under former chief Cam Sanchez and also for acting Chief Crombach. It was Mannix — then applying to become chief — Miller argued, who ordered Bryden fired. Mannix testified he did not engage in retaliation. Clearly, in Bryden’s case, the jury did not believe Mannix. It remains to be seen whether the city will appeal the ruling. 

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