Sheriff's Department misconduct-claim payouts have soared, topping $50 million last year

In one case, Los Angeles County paid more than $6 million to a woman who had been raped by a sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop.

In another, it took more than $7 million to resolve multiple lawsuits after deputies in West Hollywood mistakenly shot two hostages, killing one and seriously wounding the other.

Those payouts from 2016 helped drive a dramatic increase in the cost of resolving legal claims against the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department during the last five years, according to records reviewed by The Times.

The county’s annual payouts have jumped from $5.6 million to nearly $51 million over that time.

The judgments and settlements often involved allegations of serious misconduct against law enforcement officers, including sexual assault, excessive force, shooting unarmed suspects and wrongful imprisonment.

Many of the payouts stemmed from incidents that stretched back several years and were settled after working their way though the legal system — so they don’t necessarily reflect current deputy conduct.

But attorneys, government officials and law enforcement experts say the increase nevertheless reflects growing distrust of law enforcement and the intense public scrutiny of how officers use deadly force.

Jurors are now less likely to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt and more likely to award larger sums to plaintiffs, driving up the cost of judgments and emboldening attorneys to seek larger settlements during negotiations, experts said.

“The social climate of today has had an important impact on trials and outcomes,” said Steven H. Estabrook, litigation cost manager for the Los Angeles County counsel’s office. “Higher awards and higher costs are getting more common.”

The 42 cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department have had to pay millions of dollars more to help cover settlements. The result is that cities are finding it harder to obtain insurance to cover law enforcement litigation, and some local officials say the county should pick up more of the costs.

“The numbers are pretty shocking,” said Lael Rubin, a former L.A. County deputy district attorney and a member of the county’s Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.

Figures show that the number of lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department has declined since the 2014 resignation of Sheriff Lee Baca and the election of Sheriff Jim McDonnell later that year. Baca was recently convicted of obstructing a federal investigation into corruption and brutality in county jails.

There were 132 cases filed against the Sheriff’s Department in the fiscal year that ended in June 2016, including 59 excessive-force complaints and 18 involving shootings. That’s a drop of about 25% compared with the 2012-13 fiscal year, county data show.

Rubin said it would take time to see whether ongoing reforms within the department will have a significant impact on legal costs down the road.

McDonnell said in an interview that he’s concerned about the steep rise in litigation costs. “This is money that could be spent to help the community,” the sheriff said.

He attributed the increase in part to increased public attention on police use of force after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.

Still, McDonnell said, some of the incidents involve serious misconduct, and he’s made it clear to deputies that such behavior will not be tolerated.

“Everything we have done from Day One is designed to provide deputies with expectations of their behavior,” McDonnell said.

But L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman, who monitors the department, questioned whether the agency has properly staffed its internal affairs unit, which investigates deputy misconduct.

Two years ago, Huntsman said, the unit had 42 sergeants. Now, he said, it has 27.

“The result is a discipline system that neither deputies nor the public have confidence in, and for good reason,” Huntsman said. “It needs to be fixed.”

The costs of judgments and settlements resulting from alleged deputy misconduct were tallied in a report by the county counsel’s office that covered the last five fiscal years.

During the period from 2012 to 2016, 75% of the judgments and settlements for Sheriff’s Department-related cases involved cases of excessive force, according to the county’s report.

One night in April 2014, deputies responded to a report of an assault at a West Hollywood apartment complex. Inside, Alexander McDonald had pulled a knife and slashed a friend, Liam Mulligan, in the neck.

Bleeding, Mulligan ran out of the building, followed by another friend, 30-year-old aspiring TV producer John Winkler. Deputies mistakenly believed Winkler was the assailant and opened fire.

Winkler died of gunshot wounds. Mulligan was shot in the leg. Then-interim Sheriff John Scott later called the case a deputy’s “greatest nightmare.”

The county paid Winkler’s mother $5 million and $2.5 million to Mulligan. Those payments were made last year. L.A. prosecutors investigated the shooting and determined that there was no basis for criminal charges against the officers. Officials did recommend that the deputies involved receive additional training.

Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and former Florida police officer, said the national debate over policing in the last several years is affecting litigation costs.

Increased use of video by officers and bystanders means more evidence of misconduct winds up in civil court, he said. And jurors are more likely to doubt an officer’s version of events when it is not supported by video, he said.

“Many more members of the public are more skeptical of the police,” he said.

Attorneys who sue law enforcement agencies agreed that the national interest in police misconduct over the last few years has had a significant impact on legal judgments and settlements. But they said the outcomes still boil down to the actions of officers and how juries view that behavior.

“It hasn’t been a very good time for police departments across the country,” said attorney David Ring.

Ring represented a woman who sued after she was raped by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy during a 2010 traffic stop in Palmdale.

The deputy, Jose Rigoberto Sanchez, pleaded no contest to rape under color of authority and soliciting a bribe. He is serving a nine-year prison sentence. At Sanchez’s sentencing, the victim told him, “You essentially murdered a part of me, and I’ll never get it back.”

Her lawsuit was settled for $6.15 million — an amount paid by the county, the department’s contract cities and their insurance carrier.

Ring said government agencies have taken bad cases to trial rather than settling, resulting in costly legal defeats.

His firm handled a lawsuit that resulted in the largest payout against the Sheriff’s Department last fiscal year — to the family of Alfredo Montalvo, an unarmed 29-year-old who was killed when deputies fired 61 shots after a brief 2009 pursuit in Lynwood.

Deputies said they opened fire as Montalvo reversed toward them after crashing his car. But the plaintiffs argued that his car was wedged between two other vehicles and that he reversed so that he could comply with deputies’ orders to open his door.

In that case, county lawyers thought they had a strong case. The Sheriff’s Department had determined that the shooting was within policy. But jurors awarded nearly $8.8 million to Montalvo’s family. The county later reached a settlement for $8.85 million — which included attorney fees — to avoid spending more money on an appeal.

The financial burden is shared by cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department for patrol services. In the last fiscal year, those cities contributed $12.7 million toward the $50.9 million paid out in total. Their insurance carriers forked over an additional $19.4 million.

Marcel Rodarte, executive director of the California Contract Cities Assn., said he has seen signs that the sheriff is cracking down on deputy misconduct and hopes McDonnell’s actions will help reduce legal payouts.

Still, he said, he is concerned that the surcharge that cities pay on their contracts with the Sheriff’s Department to cover litigation costs has climbed steadily from 4% to 10%.

At the same time, he said, cities have had to raise the deductible they pay in individual lawsuits from $1 million to $3 million in order to keep insurance costs down.

Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said that the costs “are out of this world” and that the county should pay more because the Sheriff’s Department is a county agency.

“The county does the training, supervises these individuals and hires them,” he said, “so they should be responsible.”

To read the article in Spanish, click here

Times staff writer Kate Mather contributed to this report.

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes

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