Sheriff Sherman Block--stung by what he called "horror stories" in a federal lawsuit--vehemently denied Wednesday that deputies in Lynwood engaged in excessive force, and he called the complaint a ploy by gang members to discredit his department.
Civil rights attorneys representing 81 plaintiffs leveled the allegations in a massive lawsuit lodged Tuesday with the U.S. District Court. The class-action suit names Block and 22 of his Lynwood station deputies as defendants and seeks an injunction placing the station under court control.
Block, speaking at his monthly news conference, called the complaint "ludicrous" and said many of the plaintiffs are gang members facing criminal trials.
"I would say that much of this has the smell, if you will, of a group of gang members in the community who, perhaps, are banding together and trying to discredit the deputies who work in this area," the sheriff said.
The lawsuit contends that Block and other top law enforcement officials have failed to control deputies in the Lynwood station--which has 154 sworn deputies covering 7.6 square miles in Lynwood, Compton, Willowbrook and an unincorporated Los Angeles County area. It cited more than 40 alleged incidents this year of "shooting, killing, brutality, terrorism, house-trashing and other acts of lawlessness" by deputies, including two deaths and dozens of beatings.
Block angrily disputed the allegations and denied that the department has failed to discipline deputies. Block said some Lynwood deputies have been punished for excessive force over the years, along with those from other stations, but he provided no specifics.
"We will stand by our record, and I take personal offense to some of the content of these allegations as to the fact that I condone and encourage and fail to act upon these actions when they are brought to my attention," he said.
Block refused to talk about any specific cases but said that nearly half of the plaintiffs in the suit are suspected gang members rousted during house searches last March after an apparent gang shooting.
George V. Denny III, the lead attorney in the case, acknowledged Wednesday that some plaintiffs in the lawsuit are former or present gang members. But he said the majority of the plaintiffs have no gang ties--and those arrested were improperly charged with assault on officers and other crimes.
"It may be that the biggest gang in Los Angeles County is the sheriff's olive-green gang," Denny said. "They have colors. They have signs they flash to one another. They are very territorial, and they are trying to make Lynwood their turf."
Denny, along with attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Police Misconduct Lawyer Referral Service, Tuesday accused Block of ignoring brutality complaints against Lynwood deputies. Denny gave reporters copies of an April 30 letter to Block asking for an investigation of five of the cases outlined in the lawsuit. A letter from Block on May 23 promised a "thorough investigation. . . ."
Block said he could not recall the specifics of Denny's letter. However, he said that his department's Internal Investigations Bureau had only one complaint from a plaintiff in the suit, and that case--which he would not identify--was still under investigation.
"So the allegation that we failed to investigate (and) to properly discipline where appropriate . . . is somewhat hypocritical in the fact that these incidents have not been the subject of complaints to our department," said Block. Meanwhile, he blamed rising street violence for the "commensurate increase in violent confrontations between law enforcement and these violence-prone individuals."
In a Times story last May, Block had acknowledged that excessive force has been a concern of his department since a 1985 internal study cited it as one of several ethical problems that needed attention. The study led to a $300,000 program requiring every deputy to attend a daylong seminar on ethics, including techniques to avoid violent confrontations. Block said all 8,000 sworn officers have participated.
The Times also reported that excessive force lawsuits had nearly doubled over the last five years, and such cases cost the county $8.5 million in settlements and jury awards during a three-year period ending last September.
In lamenting the "list of horror stories" in the Lynwood suit, Block said the sheer number of complaints will ensure that his department will investigate the allegations. But he added that the document "is full of defamatory statements" and emphasized that there is no evidence that Lynwood deputies consistently use excessive force.
Other defendants include the county, the city of Lynwood, the Sheriff's Department, the commander of the Lynwood station, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de and Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner.
The suit seeks no specific monetary damages. Plaintiffs, however, asked for an injunction placing the Lynwood station under a "law enforcement master." Block labeled the request a "grandstand play."
Some law enforcement officials and legal scholars said the move was highly unusual.
"To my knowledge, I have never heard of that civil remedy," said James Ginger, deputy director of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit research and technical assistance organization in Washington. "It would create a situation where you would have some people who remain under the sheriff but not under his direct control. . . . That could create problems."
Robert D. Goldstein, a UCLA law professor who has taught courses in civil rights legislation, also said the plaintiffs' request for a receiver will face legal hurdles.
"It is very difficult to persuade a federal court to intervene at all in regulating a police force through an injunction," he said.