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Lawsuits Against Deputies Cost $32 Million Since ’88 : Sheriff’s Dept.: Study shows steady increase in claims and a high number of excessive-force allegations.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over the last four years, Los Angeles County has been hit by more than $32 million in court judgments, jury awards and settlements of lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department, county records show.

During that period, more than 80% of all lawsuits that went to trial involved allegations of excessive force, according to statistics compiled by the county counsel’s office and obtained by The Times.

The internal memorandum charts a steady increase in the cost of litigation against the Sheriff’s Department and comes as the County Board of Supervisors considers hiring an outside attorney to investigate the law enforcement agency.

Court judgments have increased annually, from $635,000 in 1988 to $9.1 million through this past Sept. 30, records show. Settlements have averaged about $3.5 million over the past three fiscal years.

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Supervisors today will consider recommendations to settle for $1.8 million three excessive-force suits alleging beatings, a maiming and a fatal shooting by deputies.

Voicing concern over the spiraling costs, Supervisor Ed Edelman said he will ask board members to appoint a lawyer to conduct an inquiry into the department’s handling of claims, lawsuits, citizen complaints and deputy discipline.

By hiring independent counsel, Edelman said, the board can examine ways to “reduce the costs to the taxpayers in excessive-force complaints . . . determine if deputies need more training (and) if there is proper discipline.”

“If there are some bad actors in the Sheriff’s Department, they can be weeded out at an earlier time,” he added.

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County officials said the high litigation costs largely are the result of generous juries and that the county has taken steps to identify and discipline deputies who are prone to excessive force and other misconduct.

The supervisors’ proposal is the latest effort to monitor the Sheriff’s Department, which has undergone increased scrutiny after a money-skimming scandal and controversies over several shootings of civilians.

Edelman said he has the support of two colleagues on the five-member board--Kenneth Hahn and Gloria Molina. A Hahn spokeswoman said the supervisor is adopting a “wait and see” attitude toward the proposal. A spokesman for Molina said she supports the idea of an independent review of the department.

Sheriff Sherman Block said he will not stand in the way of naming an outside counsel.

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“I have no problem with the concept,” said Block, who formed a citizens committee in September during public hearings into shootings and other alleged uses of excessive force by deputies.

That committee has come under fire from detractors who contend that his citizens panel lacks independence--a criticism that was reiterated Monday when protesters showed up before the committee’s monthly meeting to protest what they called the group’s “inactivity and illegitimacy.”

Karol Heppe, executive director of a lawyer referral service called Police Watch, said Block’s committee is “merely a smoke screen” to placate critics and that an outside investigation of the department is needed.

While staunchly defending his citizens panel, Block said he will welcome an independent counsel as long as it is “some individual who is a credible, neutral person whose sole agenda is to evaluate the system and not go in with any preconceived agenda.”

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In an interview, Block said he has no objection to the appointment of an independent counsel if the lawyer is limited to a review of the citizen complaint process, including the disciplinary system.

The sheriff said he is aware of the soaring legal costs that have accompanied complaints of brutality by deputies, as well as lawsuits stemming from injuries or deaths sustained during high-speed pursuits or while in custody.

But he said his department’s litigation record remains consistent with that of other public agencies.

“There’s nothing in either (the) lawsuits, settlements or anything else that would indicate that we are out of control, as some people would say,” Block said.

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The cost of court verdicts, jury awards and settlements involving the 8,000-member Sheriff’s Department totaled more than $32 million since 1988, according to county figures.

By comparison, city attorney records show that the 8,100-member Los Angeles Police Department sustained nearly $35 million in court judgments and settlements during roughly the same period, including $14.9 million in awards and settlements during the first eight months of this year.

The legal awards and settlements by both departments include many lawsuits that were filed years ago.

The Sheriff Litigation Report shows:

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* The county won three-quarters of the lawsuits tried between 1988 and Sept. 30. But the 27 cases that the county lost resulted in court judgments of $21.1 million.

* Damages assessed against the Sheriff’s Department have jumped dramatically over the years. In 1988, five judgments cost the county $635,000. In 1991, five judgments resulted in a total of $9,135,738 in awards.

* Excessive force by deputies was alleged in 83% of the 104 lawsuits against the sheriff that went to trial.

* Of the 97 cases handled by the county claims board, 65% of them involved allegations of excessive force.

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* Of the force cases that were settled, 47 involved alleged beatings by deputies, 13 involved shootings, and three involved the use of police dogs.

* Excessive force was alleged in 70%, or $7.6 million of the $10.9 million in settlements approved by the claims board.

“I’m concerned about the amounts of money we are paying out for these cases,” Edelman said of the county counsel’s report. “It comes at a time when obviously the (county’s) fiscal condition is severe and may get worse, so it’s all the more imperative that we reduce these costs.”

Block and county lawyers said efforts are under way to limit the financial costs of lawsuits and blamed the spiraling amount of court awards on an atmosphere where lawsuits and big-money judgments against government agencies are more prevalent.

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“There is no question that there has been an increase generally in the last couple of years in the size of verdicts when the verdicts are rendered against you,” said Robert S. Ambrose, assistant county counsel in the general litigation division.

While county statistics did not state how many of the sheriff’s cases lost by the county involved excessive-force allegations, Ambrose said they comprised a majority of the cases.

But the lion’s share of the $9.1 million in judgments this year did not involve excessive force, he said.

In one of the five judgments, Ambrose said, a jury awarded $7.25 million to Kara Lee Hershey, who became a quadriplegic after her car was struck in 1985 by a motorist fleeing sheriff’s deputies. The jurors concluded that deputies were at fault for not calling off the pursuit that led to the traffic accident. That verdict is being appealed, he said.

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Another case involved a $1.75-million award to the family of a 62-year-old Los Angeles man who died of a broken neck while in custody, Ambrose said.

The remaining three cases alleged excessive force and totaled about $100,000 in judgments, he said.

But the 1991 numbers in the county counsel report do not include hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements approved by the Board of Supervisors since Sept. 30. That amount could climb higher today when supervisors consider three settlements--totaling $1.8 million--that have been recommended by the county claims board.

Among the cases is a proposed $925,000 settlement for three men who had a 1989 run-in with Temple City deputies responding to complaints of a loud party. The trio sued the Sheriff’s Department after contending that one deputy kneed Fred Scott Mace so severely that he lost a testicle. His father, Leigh Mace, said deputies broke his ribs and a toe, and the third plaintiff, Russel Trice, suffered a back injury that required surgery, according to their lawsuit.

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One deputy was fired over the incident, Block said, and an investigation was launched by the district attorney, who declined to file criminal charges against the deputy.

County lawyers also have recommended that $700,000 be paid to the family of a 41-year-old Whittier man who was killed in 1987 by deputies serving a narcotics search warrant. Eddie Ropati was shot several times in the back and the legs after struggling with deputies from the Norwalk station who thought he had disarmed an officer. That turned out to be untrue, the county said.

The third case involves a recommended $200,000 settlement to brothers Joel and Jose Mariscal, who were allegedly beaten in 1988 by deputies as the officers tried to disperse party-goers in East Los Angeles. The brothers contend that deputies beat them with batons before falsely arresting them.

Lawsuits Against Sheriff’s Dept.

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Over the last four years, Los Angeles County has been hit with $21.1 million in court awards and judgments from lawsuits filed against the Sheriff’s Department. The county also has agreed to pay $10.9 million to settle suits during the last four fiscal years .

COURT JUDGMENTS

CALENDAR YEAR CASES LOST AWARDS* 1988 5 $635,000 1989 9 $4,800,000 1990 8 $6,530,000 1991 (through Sept. 30) 5 $9,135,738 TOTALS 27 $21,100,738

* The dollar value reflects the amount of verdict, not the actual amount paid. SETTLEMENTS

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FISCAL YEAR CASES SETTLED AMOUNT (July 1-June 30) 1988-89 26 $2,594,500 1989-90 32 $4,033,780 1990-91 32 $3,769,765 1991-92 7 $ 539,700 (through Sept. 30, 1991) TOTALS 97 $10,937,745

SOURCE: Los Angeles County Counsel’s Office


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