In a closed-door session a month ago, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to pay more than $44,000 in damages that a jury in a federal civil rights case had wanted Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and nine officers of a controversial LAPD unit to pay from their own pockets.
Stephen Yagman, attorney for the plaintiffs, said a city official personally handed him checks Wednesday to pay the damages awarded in the case involving a Feb. 12, 1990, incident in which members of the LAPD's Special Investigations Section killed three robbers and wounded a fourth at a McDonald's restaurant in Sunland.
Yagman said he was surprised because he had been unaware the council had decided to pay the damages from public funds.
After a three-month trial, the jury in March concluded that the LAPD officers had used excessive force in opening fire on the bandits and had thus violated their civil rights.
In an unusual twist, the jurors also wanted Gates and the involved SIS officers to personally pay the $44,042 award to the relatives of the three dead men and to the surviving robber, Alfredo Olivas. Jurors said their verdict was intended to "send a message" to the city's Police Department.
Nearly half of the total damages--$20,505--was to have been paid by Gates himself.
The council last month debated the question of having the city pick up the bill during lengthy closed sessions on April 21 and 22, several members confirmed Wednesday.
Although public records about the matter were not immediately available late Wednesday, several council members said they recalled the vote was either unanimous or overwhelmingly in favor of indemnifying the officers.
Yagman, a specialist in police misconduct lawsuits, denounced the decision, saying it was "incredible that the city would ignore the wishes of the jury." Yagman has claimed his lawsuit was designed to "bring an end to a murderous unit of the LAPD." The unit is still in operation.
Yagman caused a flap several months ago when he proposed that if the council agreed not to pay the fee, he would not sue the lawmakers personally in yet a second civil rights lawsuit stemming from the same shootout.
Subsequently, several lawmakers accused Yagman of trying to blackmail them. Yagman later withdrew his threat, saying he was only trying to "tweak" the council members.
During the trial in the shootout case, Yagman characterized the SIS unit as a "death squad."
In the incident that produced the lawsuit, the unit had tailed four men suspected in a string of restaurant robberies. The officers watched as the group went from Venice to Sunland, broke into a closed McDonald's and robbed the lone employee inside.
When the bandits sought to escape, the officers moved in. The officers claimed they fired their weapons 35 times after the robbers pointed guns at them. Only afterward was it learned that the robbers' weapons were unloaded pellet guns that were replicas of real firearms.
Several lawmakers, notably Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas, stated soon after the verdict that they wanted the officers to pay the fee. "I've had enough," Yaroslavsky said as he complained about $20 million in judgments and settlements paid out by the city in excessive force lawsuits during the past year.
Through his press secretary, Yaroslavsky on Wednesday refused to comment on his vote. But council sources said he was among those who finally voted to pay the fee.