Yes, a Special Counsel Is Needed : And Sheriff Block's panel should step down

Local government is limping along, trying to do more with less. So it seems incredible that Los Angeles County would, during the last four years, spend $32 million not on vital public services but to pay court judgments and jury awards and to settle lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department.

Even more damning, according to statistics compiled by the county counsel's office, more than 80% of all lawsuits that went to trial involved allegations of brutality or excessive force.

A rash of controversial shootings this year--including four fatal ones in one month--led to unprecedented scrutiny of the Sheriff's Department. The issue of excessive force is not just an issue for 1991; the records in question go back to 1988 and deal with cases that date back even further.

Why the spiraling legal costs linked to the Sheriff's Department? One answer is that big money judgments against government agencies have become more common. But that does not account for the large number of cases that involve allegations of excessive force.

Police departments are subject to lawsuits stemming from accidents that occur in the course their work--automobile accidents, for example. The disturbing part of the Sheriff Department's legal problem is the persistent charge that some deputies rely excessively on shooting, hitting and kicking to do their jobs. That's why Supervisor Ed Edelman's motion to appoint a lawyer to conduct an inquiry into the department's handling of claims, lawsuits, citizen complaints and deputy discipline deserves Board of Supervisors support. An independent counsel, Edelman said, could "reduce the costs to the taxpayers in excessive-force complaints," as well as "determine if deputies need more training (and) if there is proper discipline."

We would go further. That independent counsel needs staff backup to ensure a thorough and credible inquiry. That would be more than L.A. County has received from the sheriff's citizen panel. Since it was created by Sheriff Sherman Block in September, the panel has shown little urgency, little momentum and little sense of independence and has offered no solutions to the problems facing the department. What sense does it make to continue?

The controversy of excessive force in the Sheriff's Department will not go away. Nor will the taxpayer-supported costs of the lawsuits, settlements and judgments resulting from brutality allegations. An independent board-appointed lawyer, with a staff and the will to effect change, would at least provide a step in the right direction.

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