Lieutenant says Signal Hill police smeared him so they could promote white officer instead

A Signal Hill police lieutenant has accused the department’s chief of favoring white employees while pushing out officers who complain about racism.

In a lawsuit filed last year, Lt. Ronald Sagmit says Chief Christopher Nunley passed him over for a captain’s position because Sagmit is Filipino. Nunley is white.

Sagmit alleged that after he started questioning why he didn’t get the job over a white lieutenant he believed was less qualified, department brass ruined his reputation with a sham internal investigation and retaliatory evaluations.

“His career is over,” Sagmit’s attorney Marc Coleman said. “Nobody’s going to touch him now.”

Nunley deferred questions to a city attorney who declined to comment amid the litigation.

Signal Hill Police Chief Christopher Nunley. Courtesy Signal Hill.

Signal Hill Police Chief Christopher Nunley. Courtesy Signal Hill.

Sagmit’s lawsuit centers around a job he applied for in 2017 after more than 15 years at the department.

“He deserved a promotion to captain,” Coleman said. “He was the logical person.”

Instead, Sagmit alleges the department chose to hold the position open and kept changing the job description.

While they delayed, Nunley and the current police captain started overloading Sagmit with work and fishing for reasons to reprimand him, according to the lawsuit. By contrast, they overlooked mistakes by the department’s only other lieutenant who ended up getting the job, Sagmit alleges.

As an example, Sagmit claims the department opened a frivolous administrative investigation against him for inadequately supervising a detective whose caseload had gotten too large.

The white lieutenant, however, escaped scrutiny when traffic officers under his supervision failed to investigate hit-and-run collisions, Sagmit alleges. When this came to light, the department canceled its investigation into Sagmit to avoid the appearance of bias, according to the lawsuit.

In another instance, Sagmit says he was criticized when he underspent his budget by 35% even though the white lieutenant had overspent his budget by 50 to 60%.

Sagmit argues his case doesn’t stand alone.

When an officer wrote a memo about two Hispanic officers being upset about a white officer making racial comments, brass ignored the concern, “with the Chief stating that the racist incident should not have been reported at all,” the lawsuit says.

Nunley reportedly joked about the report, calling it “operation axe to grind,” the lawsuit says.

One of the officers involved in making the report report was assigned to desk duty, which Nunley allegedly said would “help the employee find an exit strategy,” according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys for Nunley have argued he should be dropped from the lawsuit because Sagmit doesn’t allege anything that shows the chief had any animus toward him.

Sagmit is “grasping to cite facts” to support his accusations of bias by bringing up Nunley’s alleged actions directed at other employees, the defense team argued in court papers.

The most recent filings show Signal Hill tried to get Sagmit to drop the lawsuit by offering to promote him to captain, give him $100,000 and immediately put him on paid leave until he could retire next year.

Sagmit has until early May to accept or reject the offer, but he’s planning to leave it on the table, Coleman said.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.