Council Allots $255,000 to Pay Gates’ Fine
Meeting in closed session, the Los Angeles City Council appropriated $255,000 Wednesday to pay a court-ordered judgment against Police Chief Daryl F. Gates after six of his officers roughed up an East Los Angeles family while searching for a murder weapon.
City officials said that although they still plan to appeal the landmark $170,000 judgment, which a U.S. District Court jury handed down earlier this month against Gates, they appropriated the funds should the city ultimately lose its appeal.
In civil cases, defendants are often required to put aside an amount 1 1/2 times that of the judgment while appealing.
Attorney Stephen Yagman, who represents members of the Jessie Larez family, insisted, however, that his clients will accept payment for court-ordered punitive damages only if it comes from Gates’ own pocket and those of his officers.
“The city of Los Angeles will pay these punitive damages over my dead body,” Yagman said. “My clients would be perpetrating an outrageous act on the taxpayers if they accepted what is essentially a criminal fine imposed against Gates and his officers.”
Yagman said he has ordered “asset checks” to determine whether the chief and his officers have enough money to cover the individual judgments rendered against them. If necessary, Yagman said, he will initiate legal proceedings to seize personal property belonging to Gates and the others.
Council members said they decided unanimously that the chief was acting in an official capacity, despite being held personally liable by the jury.
“If Daryl Gates was wrong, he was wrong because of his position as chief of police,” said one council member who, like his colleagues, spoke on the condition that he not be named. “If he wasn’t chief of police, he would never have been in the position to be sued in this case.
The jury’s decision in behalf of the Larezes was the first in which a U.S. police chief was held personally liable and ordered to pay punitive damages for actions deemed to have violated the constitutional rights of citizens.
Federal court jurors awarded Larez and his family $90,503 in punitive and actual damages in October against the six Los Angeles police officers who raided their East Los Angeles home on June 13, 1986. The officers, armed with a search warrant, were assigned to the department’s anti-gang unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums. The council previously authorized the $90,503 payment should the city lose the case on appeal.
The raid occurred after officers said they had been tipped that one of Larez’s sons, Edward, a purported gang member, was harboring a murder weapon. No gun was found, but during the search, which was preceded at 7:01 a.m. by officers breaking windows of the house as a diversion, Larez’s nose was broken, his daughter, Diane, was yanked to the floor by her hair and numerous household items were smashed.
The family had formally complained to the Police Department that excessive force had been used, but the officers’ supervisors concluded that the raid was conducted within department policy and dismissed the complaint.
After winning in court in October, the family pursued the case, hoping to show that the procedures used by the officers were condoned by Gates and to punish the chief personally. On Dec. 1, the same jury did just that, ordering Gates to pay more than $170,000 in punitive damages.
A critical twist in the case came not in the courtroom but just outside of it, where Gates publicly lambasted the jury and the Larez family immediately after testifying in his officers’ behalf.
Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, Gates blasted the jury’s earlier award and suggested that Larez was “probably lucky” that only his nose was broken after he rushed the officers who invaded his home.
“How much is a broken nose worth?” Gates asked reporters rhetorically. “Given the circumstances in this case . . . I don’t think it’s worth anything.”
U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi allowed those published comments and others attributed to Gates to be entered into evidence to show possible “bias maintained by (Gates) and for prior inconsistent statements.”
On Wednesday, after a 90-minute executive session in which Gates explained the case to them, several council members said they believe that the chief was treated unfairly by the jury.
‘Scope of Employment’
“The point is that they are not making a judgment against him personally because he mouthed off outside the courtroom,” one member said. “They’re holding him liable for the action of the officers.”
Said another: “We reached a finding that Gates did what he did in the scope of his employment, and, therefore, we take responsibility for the comment.”
Council members refused to publicly discuss the executive session, which was attended by at least 10 of the 15 members. The city attorney refused to even identify the subject of the closed-door meeting, other than to say it involved litigation.
In public, the council adopted a motion that authorizes the city attorney to pay up to $255,000 for “litigation expenses.”
Gates issued a one-paragraph statement after the council’s actions Thursday: “The unanimous decision of all city officials involved (is) to go forward with this case through all of the appeal process that may be necessary under the firm conviction that ultimately, justice will prevail and neither the plaintiff or their attorney will get one penny from anybody.”
Times staff writer Nieson Himmel contributed to this article.