James G. Kolts, the former Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who went from workaday anonymity to local fame as head of the Kolts Commission, which in 1992 found “deeply disturbing” use of excessive force and mistreatment of minorities by the Sheriff’s Department, has died. He was 77.
Kolts died Friday of a heart attack in Altadena while playing golf with his grandson, Daniel McAllister, said his daughter, Kathryn Showers.
The respected judge with the laudable sense of humor was on the bench from 1969 to 1989 and before that had been something of a star prosecutor as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney for 17 years.
But nothing in his long legal career gave him the satisfaction or the renown that he achieved from heading the Kolts Commission and producing the scathing 359-page Kolts Report, which was released July 20, 1992.
Kolts had retired in 1989, and although he accepted a few private judging assignments, was spending most of his time golfing and enjoying his grandchildren when he was tapped to look into the Sheriff’s Department.
Then-Supervisor Ed Edelman proposed hiring a special counsel--Kolts’ title during the investigation--to examine complaints of abuse after then-Sheriff Sherman Block refused to allow supervisors to appoint members of his citizens panel. Critics claimed Block’s oversight group was made up of his cronies and lacked independence.
Supervisors were also concerned because settlement of lawsuits over abusive practices by the department had cost the county $32 million in the previous four years.
Edelman, a Democrat, picked Kolts, a Republican appointed to the bench by Gov. Ronald Reagan and a staunch advocate of the death penalty, based on recommendations of leaders in the legal community. Kolts had a reputation for being fair, level-headed, experienced, bright, decisive, thorough and independent, with a conveniently thick skin.
He earned brickbats--and kudos--from civil libertarians and law-and-order advocates alike as he led the $400,000 investigation with a paid staff of two attorneys, a psychologist and a secretary, a contracted accounting firm, and 30 volunteer lawyers and about 20 other volunteers.
Kolts patterned his small band after the far larger Christopher Commission, headed by former Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, which investigated the Los Angeles Police Department after the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King.
Kolts read the 1991 Christopher Commission report to see what it could teach him about examining reports of excessive force, handling citizen complaints, and training and discipline of deputies. Kolts and his limited crew were to analyze operation of the 8,000-member Sheriff’s Department serving some 2.5 million people in 42 cities and unincorporated areas.
Asked why he had come out of retirement to take on the daunting assignment, Kolts told The Times after his report was issued:
“This was so liberating to me, the idea that I could draw any conclusions I wanted to or make any recommendations I wanted to without any fear of reprisal. I could direct this toward having a real effect in the community, an impact for maybe 10 or 20 years or longer. The opportunity was there.”
As a prosecutor and judge, Kolts said he had always leaned toward believing police and other law enforcement reports. But the investigation changed his mind.
“This report,” he wrote nearly a decade ago, “is a somber and sobering one in terms of the large number of brutal incidents that have been and still are occurring. Within the LASD there is deeply disturbing evidence of excessive force and lax discipline.”
The report identified 62 “problem officers” who generated multiple use-of-force complaints, found that people who filed complaints against deputies were intimidated or ignored, and criticized the district attorney’s office for apparent unwillingness to prosecute deputies. The report also disparaged a sheriff’s requirement that rookie deputies serve their first two years as guards in county jails, which Kolts’ staff called “breeding grounds for violence by deputies.” Kolts also found evidence of racially intolerant attitudes and conduct particularly aimed at blacks, Latinos and Asians, and discrimination against gays and lesbians within the department.
Kolts’ report recommended greater public accountability, including civilian participation in reviewing complaints against deputies and “general monitoring and auditing” of the department.
The judge later told The Times he was horrified by evidence in the cases he studied, including a deputy smashing a suspect’s skull after shooting him to death and that innocent bystanders injured by deputies included a 73-year-old woman dying of brain cancer.
“I was appalled at these things,” he said. “And we weren’t hearing these things from people out on the street. We were seeing this in the county counsel’s files [of paid settlements in brutality lawsuits]. It was shocking.”
Los Angeles native James Greely Kolts earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon and served in the Army infantry during World War II before obtaining his law degree at USC. After passing the bar, he became a deputy district attorney known for his successful prosecution of complicated major fraud cases. When asked to recall his most famous case, he mentioned with characteristic humor his unsuccessful prosecution of the late County Assessor Philip Watson on bribery charges in 1967.
His most famous case as a judge, he added, was of some Charles Manson follower whose name he could never recall. The defendant was Steve Grogan, convicted in the beheading of Donald “Shorty” Shea. In 1971, Kolts overruled a jury’s death penalty recommendation and sentenced him to life in prison, noting he was only 16 and of “limited intelligence” when he came under Manson’s influence. Grogan was paroled in 1985.
The judge handled criminal cases for five years and spent his last 15 years on the bench in civil court.
Kolts is survived by his wife, Dorothy; two daughters, Kathryn Showers of Altadena and Carolyn McAllister of Niceville, Fla.; a son, Robert, of Long Beach; and two grandsons.
Services are scheduled at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Church of our Savior Episcopal Church, 535 W. Roses Road, San Gabriel.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be sent either to the USC Law School or to Santa Anita Family Services, on whose board Kolts served, at 605 S. Myrtle Ave., Monrovia, CA 91016.