A jury awarded a female Los Angeles police captain $4 million in damages Friday in her sexual harassment lawsuit against the city over a nude photograph that was doctored to look like her and shared around the department.
In reaching the verdict after a day of deliberations, the Los Angeles County Superior Court jurors found that the sharing of the photo of a bare-breasted woman whose face was digitally altered to resemble Capt. Lillian Carranza, a 33-year department veteran, created a hostile work environment. They agreed with her lawyers that the top brass did nothing to stop its circulation or explain the image was a fake despite her plea to the police chief to do so in 2018.
Jurors also found that the LAPD did not take immediate and appropriate corrective action to address the hostile environment as required by state law, after Carranza reported the photo in November 2018 as she endured "severe or pervasive" harassment.
The award "sends a message to people that you can stand up for your rights," Carranza said. "It is all very well having policies and procedures when it comes to sexual harassment, but they need to be followed and in the LAPD that starts with the chief of police."
During the nearly two-week trial, Carranza testified the image was so traumatizing that she was hospitalized on Christmas Eve 2018 with severe high blood pressure as she struggled with suicidal ideation. She said doctors eventually had to double her blood pressure medication.
"Every day, she is going to be haunted. She doesn't know who has seen the photo ... it will always be out there," said Marla Brown, one of her attorneys.
Greg Smith, her lead attorney, added: "I am not shocked by the verdict. The evidence we put forward to the jury was overwhelming."
He said Carranza was so stressed by the proceedings that she could not attend the final verdict.
Lawyers for the city had argued that Carranza had never seen the image in the workplace and was not the subject of comments, jokes or other anything resembling sexual harassment in the office, saying she only saw the image when her attorney gave it to her.
The jury, after hearing from nearly a dozen witnesses, opted to award Carranza $1.5 million in past non-economic damages and $2.5 million in future non-economic damages.
Smith had asked jurors for $5 million for past economic damages and $3 million for the future suffering of his client who continues to lead the department's Gang and Narcotics Division.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore testified last week in Carranza's lawsuit against the department that the image was intended to "ridicule, embarrass or harass or smear" her, but he opted not to send a department-wide message about it because he feared “it had the potential of becoming viral.”
Moore acknowledged on the witness stand that he had sent a message to all personnel in connection with a racist valentine-style meme mocking the 2020 killing of George Floyd that was shared by an LAPD officer in 2021. But he said that was different from Carranza's case.
"They are not on the same scale," Moore said, adding he feared the valentine's post could further public mistrust of the police. "It needed a response to an entire world."
In contrast, Moore said, he did not accede to Carranza's request because to do so could create "a viral interest, human or otherwise," and a "potential for further embarrassment," with others potentially seeking out the photo.
Carranza, who at the time commanded the Commercial Crimes Division, alleged that LAPD command staff knew the image was being circulated, along with disparaging comments about her, but didn't alert her. Instead, she learned about the photo from a colleague.
Smith said even after Carranza sued the department over the incident, the chief did not publicly tell his officers it was fake or direct them not to share the image. Moore said in Carranza’s case, the department’s effort was focused on finding the “person responsible for sending that out.”
An LAPD adjudication of Carranza's complaint found the photograph had been distributed in at least "four different locations at different times" and "was portrayed to various officers as an image of Carranza." An investigation said it was not possible to identify who initiated the photo-sharing.
Defense attorney Mark Waterman, however, argued that no one in the workplace showed Carranza the photo or made any comments to her about it.
“She was not subject to interactions in her workplace that were sexually hostile,” Waterman said. “No one is teasing her.”
The incident is one of several in which women in the LAPD — which is 26% female — allege that leaders have tolerated a crude, sexist culture among the ranks.
Carranza has been the subject of prior derogatory incidents during her career. In November 2013, a then-detective teaching a training class was captured on audio saying that she was "a very cute little Hispanic lady" and that she had "been swapped around a bunch of times." The department, she said, knew of the recording but never told her about it until the officer who made the recording notified her.
The 2018 photo incident with Carranza came months after the City Council approved a $1.8-million payout to a female officer who accused an internal affairs lieutenant of sexual harassment and ordering surveillance of her when she rejected his advances.
In 2020, the city paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit from a police detective who said that she was assaulted, abused and blackmailed by a fellow officer and that department officials ignored her complaints. That officer pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor injury of a spouse or girlfriend and was sentenced to three years’ probation.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.