Lawsuits Question Actions of Sheriff's Deputies in 3 Cases


Three recent cases involving allegations of misconduct by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies have led to the deaths of two men and the wrongful incarceration of a third, while costing the county $2 million in lawsuits. But none of the more than a dozen deputies involved have been disciplined, according to records and interviews.

In all three cases, internal sheriff's investigations found that the deputies did nothing wrong. Those conclusions have been challenged by civil rights attorneys and county supervisors, who approve settlements of lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department.

As a result, the cases and their settlements are forcing Sheriff Lee Baca to demonstrate his commitment to pursuing allegations of official wrongdoing while still maintaining his fairness in assessing complaints against his deputies. Those questions can take on a political cast this year, as Baca is facing reelection, challenged by two other members of his own department.

The first case cost the county $1.1 million and Bryant Hunter his life. A deputy driving through Compton shot through the windshield of his patrol car at Hunter, who was on foot, and there was a brief chase. Hunter died about a week later from his wounds. Although the deputy said Hunter appeared to be reaching for a gun when he was shot, evidence later raised questions about the official account of the incident.

In the second case, Calvin Newburn spent 27 months in state prison before an appeals court ordered him released, ruling that two deputies' testimony that they had witnessed him selling rock cocaine was not credible.

And finally, there are the questions that have surfaced regarding Kevin Evans, a mentally ill inmate who died as 13 deputies tried to restrain him in a downtown Los Angeles jail complex.

Critics say that although those investigations are unrelated, they raise a consistent concern about the Sheriff's Department. In each instance, the agency defended its deputies' behavior even as county lawyers agreed to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle legal claims.

Although two of the three incidents occurred during the previous administration, the lawsuit settlements have been reached under Baca, who has repeatedly spoken of the need to crack down on wrongdoing in his agency and created a unique outside monitoring unit to do just that. The cases are under review by that group, the Office of Independent Review, headed by former federal civil rights prosecutor Michael Gennaco.

In an interview, Baca cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the conduct of deputies based on litigation. As he and others noted, lawyers sometimes agree to settlements for strategic or cost reasons, even when they do not believe their clients have done anything wrong.

"I don't think the public should assume that a lawsuit is conclusive evidence of wrongdoing," the sheriff said. "The nature of the cases at hand is complex."

The sheriff said he would wait for Gennaco's findings.

"That's why I pushed hard to have this office created, so we could learn from our experiences going into court," Baca said.

Gennaco said he would look into the actions of deputies as well as larger questions raised by the incidents.

"Our fundamental concern is to prevent tragedies like what have occurred from occurring" again, he said. "That's not to say that we won't be making conclusions in these matters on the behavior of some deputies."

The Board of Supervisors referred the cases to Gennaco in the last three months. Supervisor Gloria Molina, the Sheriff's Department's most vocal critic on the board, said it may be up to Gennaco to do what she doubts Baca is able to do.

"The brass doesn't have the courage to stand strong and implement discipline," she said.

Bryant Hunter

The most recent case settled by the supervisors involves the fatal shooting of Hunter.

He was walking down Compton Avenue just after midnight on March 12, 1998, when two deputies on their way to work spotted him holding what they believed was a paper bag containing an open container of alcohol, according to county and court records. Although the Sheriff's Department did not patrol Compton at the time, carrying an open container of alcohol in public violates county law.

The deputies said that they steered their car toward Hunter and that when the cruiser was 10 to 15 feet away, Deputy Shawn Jones ordered Hunter to walk toward the car. Then, allegedly thinking that Hunter was reaching for a gun, Jones pulled his own pistol and fired once through the windshield, according to district attorney files.

Hunter fled down the street, and Jones fired another shot--this time through the open driver's door window. His partner, Dennis Missel, stepped from the car and also fired several shots, according to legal papers.

The deputies said they thought they saw Hunter hurl an object over a chain-link fence, then turn the corner. They found him bleeding in a driveway. Hunter died of blood loss from the single bullet wound eight days later at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, according to a memo from county attorneys. It is unclear which shot hit him.

Investigators recovered a .357 Smith & Wesson from the area where deputies said they saw Hunter throw an object.

The Sheriff's Department found the shooting "in policy." The district attorney's office declined to prosecute, writing in a formal rejection notice that Hunter, who had several felony convictions, might have feared a third strike if the deputies arrested him for carrying an illegal handgun.

But county supervisors and Gary Abrams, the attorney representing Hunter's family, cited what they said were several troubling details:

The gun that deputies found and Hunter theoretically carried bore no fingerprints. Nor did the paper bag or bottle of brandy that Hunter was reported to have been carrying.

The lawsuit filed by Abrams states that a folding knife was found in Hunter's waistband by Deputy David Auner, who was later charged with falsifying police reports in a separate incident. He was found not guilty in that case.

"The only thing I have is some very strange circumstances, where there were no prints on anything this gentleman was carrying while sweating and running," Abrams said.

The case is not the first in which Jones has played a role in a fatal shooting. The deputy was also involved in the death of Miguel Ruiz in 1994.

Responding to a call about a man with a gun outside a house, Jones and his partner arrived at the Ruiz home in South Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 1994, and saw Ruiz standing in the driveway, pistol in hand, according to a memo by county attorneys.

The deputies said that they told Ruiz to drop the weapon but that he ran into a house and slammed the door shut behind him, the memo states. One deputy--it is unclear who--kicked the door open and stumbled inside, where Ruiz was allegedly pointing his gun at the deputies. Both officers fired. Ruiz died of his wounds.

But the account of the deputies was contradicted by eight witnesses, county attorneys wrote. Ruiz's family and neighbors say he was inside his house when the deputies arrived. Family members say that deputies kicked in the door unannounced and that Ruiz was rising from the couch, gun in his waistband, when he was shot, according to county records.

Attorney Gregory Moreno, who represented Ruiz's wife in her lawsuit against the county, said Ruiz had his gun handy because he had chased away his daughter's abusive boyfriend.

That lawsuit was settled for $425,000. The Sheriff's Department ruled the shooting appropriate and took no action against its deputies, according to county documents.

Jones, who now works in the department's training division, did not return a call seeking comment.

His role in the two shootings has alarmed county supervisors.

"This one cries out for a second look," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said after voting to approve the Hunter settlement last month.

Calvin Newburn

Calvin Newburn spent more than two years in state prison after two deputies told a jury that they had seen him selling crack cocaine on a corner in the unincorporated Lennox neighborhood in southwest Los Angeles County, according to court documents.

The deputies said that late on the afternoon of Jan. 22, 1997, they set up surveillance at a post more than 30 feet away from the corner where Newburn was allegedly dealing. Their reports indicate that they watched him move back and forth between a parked truck and passersby on the corner for about 30 minutes, then detained Newburn and found crack stored in the wheels of the truck he had lingered by, according to a memo by county lawyers.

Newburn, 30, told a different story. In court papers, he said he was going to visit a girlfriend with two acquaintances and was standing outside her house when a sheriff's car pulled up and deputies pushed them against the fence and began searching them.

When Newburn grumbled that he was going to file a complaint, he said the deputies asked him if he was on parole, according to court and county records.

Newburn was the only one of the three men who was arrested. One of his acquaintances went to the Lennox sheriff's station to complain about an unlawful arrest and left his number with the watch commander there, according to Newburn's lawsuit against the county. The man was never contacted.

Prosecutors charged Newburn with possession of cocaine base for sale. His first trial ended in a hung jury.

Before his second trial began, Newburn's attorney subpoenaed the records of communication between the Sheriff's Department's squad cars to challenge deputies' testimony that they had seen Newburn deal drugs while conducting surveillance.

It was not until closing arguments were about to begin in the second trial that the department produced the documents Newburn's attorney had requested, court records state. The trial judge, Stephen E. O'Neil, refused to allow them to be entered into evidence. Newburn was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.

He appealed the conviction and waited in prison for 27 months while the appeal was considered. In January 1999, the California Court of Appeal found that the records of communication contradicted deputies' testimony that they had had Newburn under surveillance. His conviction was overturned, and he was released.

The district attorney's office declined to refile charges. County supervisors approved paying $295,000 to settle Newburn's civil rights lawsuit.

Creamer and Conner, who work in the Special Enforcement Bureau, did not return calls or messages left with the sheriff's media office.

The department investigated the case and found that the six deputies involved did not have formal surveillance training and failed to document the surveillance. It attributed the discrepancy between the testimony and the transmission records to "a memory lapse" and determined there was no policy violation or criminal intent. Therefore, said a memo from the department to county supervisors, the deputies were not disciplined. They were given remedial training on surveillance and testifying in court.

Kevin Evans

Kevin Evans, a homeless schizophrenic living in Palmdale, was arrested by sheriff's deputies in 1999 and transferred to the jail complex in downtown Los Angeles. Doctors who never entered the jail to examine Evans directed that all of his limbs be tied down in order to control him.

When a team of deputies laid him down to restrain him, Evans began to struggle. Deputies piled on top of him, according to county records, including a videotape of the restraint, and Evans died.

Once they realized he was dead, the deputies turned off the video camera and called for paramedics. Several minutes passed before medical personnel attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Sheriff's investigators found no wrongdoing by the deputies, though a nurse did resign and plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of falsifying a report. Supervisors agreed to settle a lawsuit by Evans' family for $600,000.

The videotaped death has already spurred one outside inquiry, by attorney Merrick Bobb, who monitors the Sheriff's Department for the Board of Supervisors. His report was highly critical of the department, and its presentation to the board touched off a pointed exchange between Baca and supervisors, some of whom wanted the sheriff to take stronger action against the deputies involved. Baca and the supervisors agreed that Gennaco should look at the matter.

Still, Baca has defended his deputies' behavior in the Evans case, saying that they did not want to hurt the inmate and that they followed department policies, which he said have been changed since the death.

Leo Terrell, the civil rights attorney who handled Newburn's civil suit, said he hopes that Baca can reduce institutional resistance to taking responsibility for deputies' questionable actions.

"I get the impression he wants to make some changes, but he hasn't been tested yet," Terrell said.

For his part, Baca stressed that deputies must make snap decisions on life-and-death matters.

"There's a sequence of events....When you add it all up, it doesn't easily wash in the sterile, after-the-fact analysis," the sheriff said. "When we finish our analysis of these cases, you're going to find pieces that support what we've done and things that maybe could have been done differently."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World