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South Florida Sun Sentinel

Fired police chief files $10 million lawsuit against Fort Lauderdale

By Susannah Bryan, South Florida Sun-Sentinel,

2023-03-14
Larry Scirotto, shown here on Dec. 21, 2021, was fired last March from his job as Fort Lauderdale’s police chief. He has now filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city. Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS

Larry Scirotto, the onetime Fort Lauderdale police chief fired after just six months on the job, has filed a federal lawsuit against the city claiming wrongful termination and is seeking a jury trial with damages approaching $10 million.

Scirotto was hired partly to help boost diversity at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, only to be fired in March 2022 amid allegations he promoted minority officers based on skin color.

Scirotto’s swift termination created a media storm , spawning headlines at news outlets worldwide.

“I’m doing this to have my name cleared,” Scirotto told the South Florida Sun Sentinel this week. “As long as the city is saying I violated [equal job opportunities] law, then my name will be forever tarnished.”

Scirotto, 49, was the department’s first gay chief. He is also biracial, the son of a white mother and Black father.

The federal suit accuses Fort Lauderdale of launching an unwarranted and retaliatory investigation against Scirotto and firing him for refusing to participate in the department’s “racist and prejudicial promotion/hiring practices.”

Millions in lost wages

During his short tenure, Scirotto promoted 15 cops. Nine were straight white men. The other six were minorities by ethnicity or gender.

During the promotional process, Scirotto consulted with several members of senior staff before making his decision, according to the lawsuit.

“Although nine of the 15 employees promoted were white males, Mr. Scirotto received significant opposition from FLPD employees demanding that Mr. Scirotto promote an even greater number of white employees,” the lawsuit says.

In October 2021, four officers who were not promoted — three men and one woman — filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints claiming discrimination.

Soon after, Scirotto met with then-City Manager Chris Lagerbloom and the Human Resources director to review his promotions. Both backed his decision-making process, the lawsuit says.

But in November, Lagerbloom tapped former prosecutor Gregg Rossman to conduct an independent investigation into whether the chief made promotions based on race and gender.

In late February, the report — described by Scirotto’s lawsuit as inherently biased — determined he had leaned too heavily on race in deciding who to promote.

Scirotto, initially hailed by city leaders as an agent for change, was fired six days later.

Scirotto says he and his attorneys estimate the early exit cost him an estimated $9.6 million in lost wages, health care and pension benefits.

His federal lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on March 3 — exactly one year after his firing.

Unwelcome outsider?

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis declined to comment on the lawsuit, a customary response for cities facing litigation.

Longtime community leader Bill Brown said he wasn’t “at all surprised” by the lawsuit.

Last year, Brown blasted Scirotto’s termination, saying he believed the chief was “railroaded” partly because he was an outsider and partly because he was trying to usher in change.

“Now that the lawsuit has been filed, we will know the entire truth of how the entire situation played out, with the hope that the courts will get to the bottom of it,” Brown said this week. “Now we’ll know the rest of the story. I welcome the truth finally coming out.”

Scirotto, a former assistant police chief in Pittsburgh, says he was treated as an unwelcome outsider by some in the department. His predecessor, Rick Maglione, still works at the agency as a police major.

Maglione lost his title as chief in July 2020 after defending officers who fired rubber bullets at protesters during a fierce national debate over police brutality.

Scirotto, tasked with bringing further diversity to the department, got warnings from the mayor and Lagerbloom that he’d likely face resistance and opposition in his efforts to promote and hire more minorities, the lawsuit says.

“I was not surprised by the pushback from the organization,” Scirotto told the Sun Sentinel. “But Chris [Lagerbloom] always told me I had his ultimate support. And I did, until I didn’t.”

Within days of being fired, Scirotto hired Fort Lauderdale attorneys David Di Pietro and Nicole Martell to represent him.

Scirotto now lives in Dallas and is still working as a college basketball referee for the NCAA — a moonlighting gig he kept while chief with permission from Lagerbloom.

According to Rossman’s report, the chief, on more than one occasion, pointed to a wall in his conference room with photos of the department’s command staff and said, “That wall is too white.”

Rossman also claimed the chief admitted to making several statements about “the wall being too white” and not reflecting the community.

Scirotto denies ever using the words “too white” to describe the wall of photos.

In his report, Rossman concluded there was a “very divisive atmosphere” within the department based on the perception the chief was intentionally using race, gender and sexual orientation as attributes necessary for promotions, the lawsuit says.

‘End of the road’

Rossman’s 13-page report was based on interviews with 21 members of the police department, including Scirotto and candidates who were not promoted.

An estimated 80 employees were invited to give a statement to Rossman but only 20 came forward, the lawsuit notes.

The report “can hardly be considered reliable as a majority of the interviews conducted by Mr. Rossman were with disgruntled employees who likely have a negative bias toward [Scirotto] due to their failure to receive a promotion,” the lawsuit says.

Scirotto got a chance to read the report during a meeting with the Human Resources director. Scirotto made note of several factual inaccuracies, but was not given a copy of the report, the lawsuit says.

Two days later, he was summoned to Lagerbloom’s office and fired.

“We are at the end of the road,” Lagerbloom told Scirotto, according to the lawsuit.

Then-City Attorney Alain Boileau was also in the room and is quoted as saying: “The decision is already made. You violated the law.”

Scirotto told the Sun Sentinel he looks forward to his day in court.

“The investigation sounded more like CliffsNotes from the Twilight Zone,” he said. “What they did has damaged my reputation, which affects my viability as a candidate for any future policing job.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan

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