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The Miami Police Department is holding its breath as a federal jury weighs the evidence against 11 officers accused of planting guns and lying to cover up bad shootings of suspects. But last week a different federal jury in Miami opened another jagged fissure at the department with a $160,000 civil verdict that’s an additional public embarrassment for the beleaguered Miami P.D. Five disabled officers — each injured in the line of duty — sued the city in 2000, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The officers claimed the city had discriminated against them by prohibiting them from working off-duty details of any kind. After hearing testimony about how the disabled officers were known around police headquarters as “the cripple squad, the gimp squad or the MASH unit,” the jury awarded one of them $40,000 and the others $30,000 for “emotional pain and mental anguish.” The trial took six days. The jury came back in 2 1/2 hours, plaintiff attorney Michael B. Feiler said. “To my knowledge, this is the first case in the country where a police officer has asserted a successful claim under the ADA,” said Feiler, a partner in Coral Gables’, Fla., Feiler Leach & McCarron. The plaintiffs are Lt. Steve Rossbach, who got the $40,000 award, Lt. Raul E. Cairo, Sgt. Lawson Sutton, and Officers Ernesto R. Sam and Francisco J. Gorordo. They are unable to handle combat-ready duty. Today, each is assigned to limited duty jobs in units like personnel, property and court liaison. Each of those men has been a police officer for more than 20 years, Feiler said, and each is partially disabled from major orthopedic injuries suffered while on duty. The injuries were sustained in a variety of ways while chasing down suspects, Feiler said. Miami City Attorney Alejandro Villarello said the city is now awaiting a post-trial ruling by U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez on a motion filed during the trial that would override the jury’s verdict. Among the city’s arguments: None of the officers is actually disabled under the ADA because they couldn’t do the full job of a police officer even with the ‘reasonable accommodation’ the law provides for. “Now that the evidence has come in it’s our position that as a matter of law there were no facts presented that would support a verdict against the city,” said Villarello. New Miami Police Chief John Timoney said a full appeal would be filed if necessary. Further roiling the Miami P.D. are claims of retaliation by two Miami officers who are not plaintiffs but who took the witness stand at trial. Sgt. Juan Aguirre and Officer Jose Behar gave corroborating testimony about the use of denigrating phrases like “gimp squad,” Feiler said. Aguirre and Behar have retained Feiler to represent them in a contemplated whistle-blower action against the city, Feiler said. Aguirre testified that his boss in the Miami P.D.’s special events unit, Lt. Rene Landa, would walk around holding his back and limping to make fun of Sgt. Sutton, Feiler said. The unit coordinates and approves off-duty work by officers. “Aguirre said Landa would also clutch his chest like that guy on ‘Sanford & Son’ used to do when he was pretending to have a heart attack,” Feiler said. Landa, who was present for Aguirre’s testimony, could not get clearance to comment before deadline. According to Feiler, Landa testified that he’d just been kidding around. Feiler said that only hours after Aguirre testified, Landa informed Aguirre he was cutting Aguirre’s off-duty work level in response to complaints. Aguirre, like other cops, earns thousands of extra dollars every year working off-duty details. Aguirre was also dressed down days later by higher-ups who accused him of betraying the department, Feiler said. Officer Behar got similar treatment, Feiler said. The suit, filed in March 2000, alleged Miami had “an official policy where by officers on light or limited duty status were prohibited from engaging in any kind of off duty work regardless of its nature.” As the suit notes, police officers traditionally earn a large part of their annual income working off-duty hours for private employers. Such work can include combat-ready positions like bank guards, or administrative duties such as handling communications for special events. But Miami took the position that the very nature of police work requires that officers must always be combat-ready. Problems can occur at any time and at any place, and officers must be able to deal with them should they arise. “Allowing plaintiffs to be placed in a position in which combat may occur would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others as well as the health and safety of the plaintiffs themselves,” say court papers filed by the city. Nevertheless, Feiler said, evidence presented at trial showed that “a favored few” disabled officers on light duty were allowed to work off-duty assignments from time to time. “There was never a problem of any kind because of that work,” Feiler said. “That just killed the city’s defenses.”

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