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Cases loom against Burbank police

Several court proceedings involving alleged misconduct carry into the new year.7

January 05, 2011|By Gretchen Meier, gretchen.meier@latimes.com

Investigations and court proceedings regarding brutality allegations against the Burbank Police Department continue to move forward as the new year begins.

One of the most recent court cases alleging officer misconduct was filed in September at Los Angeles County Superior Court and now will move to federal court.

Preston Smith alleged in his lawsuit that Burbank police officers Adam Baumgarten, Michael Edwards and Neil Gunn Jr. physically assaulted him in April 2009 and falsified police reports regarding his arrest.

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Court documents also allege the city "was aware of and was deliberately indifferent to a pervasive and widespread pattern and practice" within the Police Department of concealing evidence and excessive uses of force.

Following the initial complaint, the city attorney's office filed to remove the case from state court in November due to the allegations of civil rights abuses.

"Federal civil rights law is very specialized, and the city wanted a federal judge who is familiar with federal law to rule on the legal issues," said city spokesman Keith Sterling.

The city is defending Baumgarten and Edwards. Gunn — whose father, Sgt. Neil Thomas Gunn, died in October 2009 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on a north Burbank street corner — is being represented by outside counsel.

Smith is also seeking $10,000 in restitution for medical expenses and damages for pain and suffering, according to court documents.

His attorney, Max Sauler, declined to comment on the move to federal court.

Jury trials are scheduled to start later this year in a number of other lawsuits alleging misconduct within the Burbank Police Department, including a wrongful termination suit filed by Det. Christopher Dunn after he was fired in 2008 and allegations of racial discrimination against former Lt. Omar Rodriguez, who was fired in April 2010.

As legal fees continue to mount for litigation related to the ongoing investigations and lawsuits — totaling more than $1.2 million to more than 12 law firms — the City Council voted Tuesday to bring in additional outside counsel.

The law office of Corbin, Fitzgerald & Athey was hired to review the Burbank Police Department Use of Force Management Audit to the tune of $75,000 after City Atty. Dennis Barlow recused himself and his office from any examination.

In doing so, he cited the close working relationship between his office and Police Department, according to city documents.

"Since our city attorney's office has expressed the possibility of a conflict, we need someone who has the experience to review these things," Mayor Anja Reinke said before the meeting.

A staff report presented to the City Council indicated Corbin, Fitzgerald & Athey will report directly to City Manager Mike Flad.

"Regardless of what is in the staff report, it is my intent that the outside counsel will report and take direction from the City Council," Flad said Tuesday night. "My role will be administrative only."

Flad clarified that the city manager's office will only be involved in receiving and paying invoices submitted by Corbin, Fitzgerald & Athey.

The explanation came after Councilman David Gordon expressed concerns about the language used and his understanding of how specialized counsel is hired.

The item was approved 4 to 1, with Gordon dissenting.

The $75,000 will come from money previously earmarked for police litigation, officials said.

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