Police Chief Loses $2.5 Million Defamation Verdict On Appeal

Jerado Blue was the Chief of Police of the Pasadena, California Unified School District. As Chief of Police, Blue was in charge of 32 schools, and a staff that included eight full-time officers, four part-time officers, and three supervisors.

On March 9, 2000, Blue conducted a test of a newly-purchased surveillance camera. He placed the surveillance camera on a coffee table in a supply room, facing the door. The camera transmitted images to a monitor in Blue’s office, which was next door. Bill Saltsman, Blue’s second in command, assisted him in the test, which lasted approximately 20 minutes.

The next day, Blue’s secretary saw the camera in plain view, but did not immediately realize what it was. When she unlocked Blue’s office and saw the monitor, she realized the equipment was a camera. Later, the secretary unthinkingly adjusted her clothing in front of the camera, realized what she had done, and asked the dispatcher to look at the image on the monitor to see if she could be seen on the monitor. The dispatcher replied in the negative, stating that only the lower portion of the secretary’s body was shown. When Officer Tina Means came into the office, the secretary told her about the camera, and Means became very upset.

Later, anonymous letters were sent to the District Superintendent alleging that the secretary found a camera in an office “that is used for the female officers as a made-up locker room,” and that Blue was spying on the female officers. The letters were also sent to the Pasadena Star News. By the time the letters were received, the camera had been removed from the supply room and was installed on property of the District where some burglaries had occurred. The camera was used in the apprehension of the burglar, who turned out to be a part-time police officer.

The District conducted an investigation into the anonymous letters. The secretary and the dispatcher told the investigator that the camera was in plain view and they did not believe Blue was trying to spy on any employees. At a School Board meeting, the investigator presented the Board with the anonymous letters and a statement from Officer Means, who was still upset about the camera.

On March 25, 2000, the Star News and the Los Angeles Times ran articles regarding the camera incident. The District’s spokesperson was cited as saying “there was some suspicion the camera could have been recording someone while they were dressing,” and that “complaints that Blue hid a video camera in a room where female officers dress and undress will instead be investigated as a confidential personnel matter.”

After suffering from depression, headaches, and stomach problems, Blue retired on disability. He then filed a lawsuit for defamation of character against the District. When a jury awarded Blue special damages of $1 million and general damages in the amount of $1.5 million, the District appealed.

The California Court of Appeals overturned the jury’s verdict, finding that Blue was unable to prove that the statements of the District’s spokesperson were false. The Court noted that the spokesperson “did not state that Blue concealed a hidden camera for the purpose of videotaping female officers dressing or that the District believed that Blue had committed any crime. In the delicate position of reassuring the public that an investigation was being conducted into allegations made against the District’s Police Chief, the spokesperson necessarily repeated the substance of the assertions in the anonymous letters. Our review of the articles indicates the spokesperson presented a balanced picture of the information available to him. The spokesperson’s statements neither asserted nor implied the existence of circumstances suggesting that Blue had been charged with a crime, that his employees believed he had committed a crime, or that he had actually concealed a camera.”

The Court’s decision was by a two-one margin. The dissenting judge argued that an employer had no right to report defamatory allegations to a newspaper, and that there was absolutely no evidence that the camera was “concealed” or “hidden.”

Blue v. Pasadena Unified School District, 2005 WL 3491123 (Cal.App. 2005).

This article appears in the March 2006 issue