A federal judge’s ruling on Wednesday allows the civil rights lawsuit filed by Sgt. Giovanni Veliz against the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) to go to trial, despite the city’s efforts to impede it.
That’s good news for Veliz, a 16-year veteran of the department who filed the suit early last year, many months before the more highly publicized lawsuits involving African-American cops suing the department. Veliz, who is Latino, contends that he was unfairly turned down for a job with the elite Minnesota Gang Strike Force.
Last year, the city’s civil rights department found probable cause to substantiate Veliz’s claims. Veliz believed the MPD was violating federal and city laws, including the 2003 Memorandum of Agreement created to answer minorities’ longstanding complaints about civil rights issues and language barriers. Five high-ranking black police officers are suing the MPD over similar accusations.
Though Veliz (pictured at right) declines to discuss the case, he did offer this statement via e-mail: “I am… pleased at the opportunity to have my claims heard by a jury. I am committed to upholding the nation’s guarantor of rights–The United States Constitution. I believe that the effectiveness of any law enforcement organization depends on the level of trust and confidence of the community; therefore it is important to maintain the community’s trust, support and confidence by guarding individual’s rights.”
Sgt. Bill Palmer, an MPD spokesman, says it’s the department’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.
U.S. Judge Richard Kyle issued a lengthy written opinion on the claims. Though he notes in his opinion that the charges are somewhat inconsistent with each other, he favors Veliz’s claim that the case is similar to the legal battles involving Lts. Medaria Arradondo and Lee Edwards, who have also alleged that the MPD has a “culture of discrimination and retaliation” against minority officers who complain about problems.
Kyle takes issue with the city’s contradictory statements about Veliz’s experience and skills, especially in comparison with those of the officer who landed the Strike Force job, Sgt. Jeff Jindra. Throughout the hearings, city officials had pointed to Spanish fluency and Latino community outreach as an important part of the Strike Force–areas in which Veliz has an extensive background and Jindra reportedly does not. Additionally, city officials stressed the need for a candidate who did not have any internal affairs battles on his record. Veliz has never faced disciplinary issues while Jindra has been the subject of community complaints.
The city maintains that Veliz was unmotivated in his work — a claim it did not advance at the start of the proceedings, prompting Kyle to write in his order, “the City appears to be changing its tune, and an employer’s [s]ubstantial changes over time in [its] proffered reason for its employment decision support a finding of discrimination or retaliation.” Further, the city claims that key decision-makers didn’t know about Veliz’s charges prior to the hiring, yet it failed to bring that up, as well, in its original response. Based on testimony, media coverage and more, Kyle concluded, “a reasonable jury could conclude that the decision-makers were indeed aware of Veliz’s charges
John Lazoya, president of the Minnesota Association of Latino Peace Officers, says that he and his fellow board members were reviewing the case to determine whether it should take legal steps to support Veliz. Carolina Lamas, president of the Minnesota Hispanic Lawyers Association, comments, “If the allegations are true, I think it’s really bad for the Latino community and for the Minneapolis police department. It takes a brave officer to stand up against the department and point out any civil rights violations he may have witnessed.”
Michael Friedman, executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, said Veliz has always been an officer who attorneys could trust for assistance, especially concerning minority issues. From what he can seel, he tells MnIndy, the evidence “seems to suggest that there’s a chilling effect on the officers who want to be a valuable bridge between the city and communities of color,” he said.
A settlement conference for the case is slated for September.