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Neither Witch Hunt nor Whitewash : Alarmed supervisors appoint special counsel to probe excessive use of force by deputies

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved $1.8 million in settlements for three cases alleging excessive force by sheriff’s deputies. Even in this age of lottery-size tort awards, such high-price settlements are disturbing. In response, the board appointed a retired judge to probe what can be done to avoid cases that result in such hefty outlays of taxpayer funds to settle excessive-force claims against the Sheriff’s Department. That’s a helpful and necessary move.

In naming a special counsel, the board is acknowledging that huge payouts are likely to continue until someone gets a grasp on the problem.

James G. Kolts will review the department’s policies and practices dealing with the use of excessive force, including the handling of citizen complaints, training and discipline of deputies. Kolts, 67, is a former prosecutor and Superior Court judge who retired in 1989. His low-key style could be compared to that of former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who headed the panel that so thoroughly probed the Los Angeles Police Department and recommended sweeping changes after the Rodney King beating incident.

Supervisor Ed Edelman said that Kolts is “not going to conduct a witch hunt, but he’s not going to whitewash” problems either. Wisely, Kolts wants to bring staff help aboard--an accountant, an educator and a psychologist. The board should pay for any staff Kolts needs. After all, since 1988 the county has coughed up nearly $34 million for lawsuits and settlements relating to the Sheriff’s Department--and 80% of the suits that went to trial involved allegations of excessive force.

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Kolts said he does not see himself as an adversary of Sheriff Sherman Block; Block has not opposed the probe. Kolts characterizes the situation as “win-win.” Let’s hope so. The important thing is the county finally is set to start an independent probe.

The public has legitimate concerns that must be addressed regarding some allegedly brutal deputies. What’s needed now is speedy, expert, independent attention.


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