Mar. 27-More than two years after firing a police officer for running a red light while in pursuit of a speeding car, the city of Bakersfield is embroiled in a legal battle costing tens of thousands of dollars.
The officer, Christopher Messick, has accused senior Bakersfield Police Department officials of criminal behavior, which he alleges is the true reason he was fired. However, the city contends Messick's firing came about solely because his red light incident endangered the public and he showed no remorse when confronted about it by his superiors.
A Civil Service Board hearing convened in December to investigate Messick's claims and found no evidence the officer was terminated because he filed a grievance with the city.
In total, the Civil Service Board has met twice to examine the circumstances behind Messick's release, upholding BPD's decision both times. Messick has filed two lawsuits alleging he was improperly let go.
The city has hired the law firm Clifford & Brown. As the case has dragged on, the bills have added up. In early March, the City Council authorized up to $100,000 for the city's defense.
One reason for the extended timeline is that in November, Kern County Superior Court found that the Civil Service Board did not allow any evidence to be heard regarding Messick's claims of retaliation, prompting the second hearing.
"It's beyond me that the city is authorizing so much money to be spent on defense costs when the city has already experienced being defeated in court," said Messick's attorney, Richard Levine.
But the city counters that refusing to defend the termination, and potentially allowing Messick back, could lead to higher costs and more unsafe situations.
"Sometimes it costs money and it's better to go ahead and pay that money than to have that individual out on the streets," said City Attorney Ginny Gennaro. "If the department feels this strongly, that this (person) isn't meant to be a police officer and we had a police Civil Service Board... that felt the recommendation was justified, I feel very confident in their decision. And that's a decision that we should fight for, and we should defend."
According to court documents issued as part of Judge J. Eric Bradshaw's decision to reopen the Civil Service Board hearing, Messick entered the intersection of Wible Road and White Lane driving around 91 miles per hour. It was around 2:30 a.m. in December 2017, and Messick was pursuing a speeding black car without its rear lights activated, the documents say.
When Messick was 330 feet from the intersection, the light turned red, according to the documents. A video of the incident captured by a red light camera shows Messick activated his emergency lights at the same time the light turned red, or around 2.5 seconds before he entered the intersection, the documents say.
In a written statement sent to his superiors as part of an internal investigation into the incident, Messick said he was positive he could make it through the intersection before any other traffic could enter and he believed he should have been going faster to catch the suspect, according to the documents.
Messick received a notice of termination on July 12, 2018, according to the documents. Although he expressed regret for his actions during a mandated hearing, the decision was reaffirmed and Messick received a notice of termination on Sept. 25.
Four days later, Messick posted a Facebook video accusing senior BPD officials of committing criminal violations. He said he sent evidence of the illegal actions to an assistant chief months earlier, and that night he was put on administrative leave.
In the video, he admits to making a mistake while on duty, but said it was the first he had made in nine years as an officer.
"The department has made me lose everything," he said in the video. "All because I decided to stand up for what was right. I decided to do the right thing, report something."
The video was subsequently viewed around 30,000 times and Lyle Martin, who was chief at the time, ordered an investigation into the claims.
More than two years later, nothing has surfaced as a result of the investigation.
"The department wanted to make sure that there wasn't any substance to anything that he said," Gennaro said. "What I can tell you is to the best of my knowledge, nothing of substance was found."
In legal filings, Messick's attorneys have claimed the officer's punishment was excessive in light of his record. They also allege that Messick was denied a fair hearing by the Civil Service Board.
They seek Messick being reinstated as a police officer along with $25,000 for each violation of the Public Safety Officers Bill of Rights, attorneys fees, and other damages.
You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.