Advertisement

Sheriff’s Department defied court orders to name deputies with histories of misconduct. It was a costly decision

A Dennis "Todd" Rogers photo next to lawyer Peter Morris, Rogers' sister Cynthia Smart, mom Janet Williams, cousin B.R. Lane
A photo of Dennis “Todd” Rogers is held next to attorney Peter Morris as he speaks during a 2017 press conference in downtown L.A.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

On three occasions, a judge ordered the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to produce a roster of deputies with histories of misconduct.

Court deadlines came and went. Tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions against the county piled up.

But the list was never disclosed.

Janet Williams had requested the so-called Brady list in a 2017 civil rights lawsuit after a deputy shot and killed her son, Dennis “Todd” Rogers, 41. She hoped the list would show the department failed to provide proper training and supervision to deputies, leading to excessive force.

Advertisement

But she never got that far. After the Sheriff’s Department repeatedly failed to provide the list to Williams, U.S. District Court Judge André Birotte Jr. granted a default judgment in her favor of more than $2 million.

“Defendants have committed serious, inexcusable discovery abuses and have violated repeated court orders, thereby engaging in culpable conduct that led to their default,” Birotte, who formerly served as the U.S. Attorney for the Los Angeles region, wrote in his Sept. 25 ruling.

The decision comes as the Sheriff’s Department faces mounting criticism for resisting disclosure of information about deputies with histories of misconduct and retreating from other reforms — claims it has strongly refuted.

It has been sued by organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Los Angeles Times over a new transparency law that allows the public to see records of confirmed cases of lying and sexual assault by officers, as well as shootings and major uses of force. (L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has attributed delays in compliance to limited staffing and lack of funding, saying the department is “more transparent than ever before.”)

Advertisement

During Villanueva’s tenure, the county’s Office of Inspector General has reported that officials have inactivated internal personnel investigations at a high rate, with many cancellations not meeting the department’s standards for closing an investigation. A Superior Court judge recently found that Villanueva had unlawfully rehired a deputy who had been fired by his predecessor, Sheriff Jim McDonnell, after domestic violence allegations. (Villanueva has said the deputy was denied due process.)

Birotte’s ruling also comes as law enforcement agencies across the nation, including the Sheriff’s Department, have faced massive protests against their use of force following controversial killings of people of color. Williams maintained that the deputies involved in her son’s shooting outside a Ladera Heights gym lacked proper training.

The Sheriff’s Department and the county claimed in court filings that their outside attorney on the case, Douglas Day, intentionally deceived them and hid Williams’ request for the Brady list despite weekly calls and frequent meetings.

But a deposition by Day and a January 2018 email he sent to the Sheriff’s Department and the county that attached the request indicated that “they knew, or at the very least should have known,” Birotte said in court records. Day did not respond to a request for comment.

Advertisement

The Sheriff’s Department and the county ultimately never released the list to Williams, offering only to reveal it privately to a judge. They argued the deputies involved in Rogers’ shooting were not on the list and that sharing it could jeopardize a then-pending case before the California Supreme Court focused on whether the list can be given to prosecutors.

“They still haven’t produced the Brady list,” said Peter Morris, an attorney who represented Williams. “That tells me that they want to keep the Brady list secret at all costs.”

L.A. County spokesperson Lennie LaGuire said that the county has no comment on the litigation.

In a statement Saturday, the department said: “We are not happy with the outcome, which was a complete surprise to us. The facts of this case and the decisions made regarding this case occurred during the prior sheriff’s administration. We were unaware of the developments in this case and will be discussing this in depth with County Counsel.”

Advertisement

While the lawsuit was filed under then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell, a magistrate judge hearing the case recommended a default judgment in William’s favor in July, 2019. Villanueva assumed office in December, 2018.

Birotte this year also approved a $1.3-million settlement against the county in a separate lawsuit brought by Rogers’ children.

Priscilla Ocen, a member of the sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said the judgment illustrates how “time and time again” the Sheriff’s Department has blocked transparency about deputies alleged to have committed misconduct and those with a history of bad behavior.

“They would rather pay $2 million than turn over a list, which I think the people have a right to have, especially people who are litigating over the practices and policies of the Sheriff’s Department as it relates to excessive force,” she said.

Advertisement

Sean Kennedy, another commissioner, said that “hiding information about deputy misconduct has become more important to them than complying with the law.”

“When a federal judge grants a $2 million default judgment against the LASD for refusing to comply with court orders to produce the Brady list, it’s a red flag of serious transparency problems within the Department,” he said in a statement.

Legal experts said the judgment may lead to more lawsuits that demand the Sheriff’s Department produce names of deputies whose credibility could be in question. Simona Grossi, a professor at Loyola Law School who teaches federal civil procedure, said a different outcome would have allowed the county and Sheriff’s Department to continue exploiting the system.

“The information was there, it was just not being provided,” she said.

Advertisement

The Brady list, named for a 1963 Supreme Court decision that requires prosecutors to alert defendants to favorable evidence, was compiled in 2014 under interim Sheriff John Scott to track officers whose histories of misconduct might damage their credibility as witnesses in court.

It was developed during a time of scandal at the Sheriff’s Department, in which an FBI probe of inmate abuse uncovered years of excessive force and cover-ups.

When McDonnell tried to hand the names of about 300 “Brady” deputies to prosecutors, the L.A. County deputies’ union sued. In August 2019, California’s Supreme Court ruled that the department and other law enforcement agencies can alert the district attorney’s office that a deputy who might testify in a criminal case has a history of misconduct.

Villanueva has called the Brady list a “fake list,” saying it reflects corrupt investigations aimed to retaliate against deputies. But after the Supreme Court’s decision, he said that instead of maintaining a list, the department would “work out an effective, efficient, transparent and open process” to provide information to prosecutors on a case-by-case basis.

Advertisement

Commander Scott Johnson of the department’s Professional Standards Division said it provides the district attorney’s office with names and information about any deputy with records responsive to the new transparency law, and that those records are available on its website.

Johnson said the department does not alert prosecutors to deputies who do not fall under the transparency law but have histories of misconduct that might also lead the district attorney’s office to question their credibility in court.

The Civilian Oversight Commission has pushed for more disclosure. In October 2019, it passed a resolution calling for the department to provide a complete list of all potentially compromised deputies to prosecutors.

In the Brady case decided by the state Supreme Court, a superior court had said the department could not disclose a Brady list if those on the list were not people who might testify in a criminal case. But Brian Williams, the executive director of the commission, said he still stands behind the panel’s call for increased transparency.

Advertisement

“The question is, ultimately, does the department know about Brady information concerning specific deputies and is the department turning that information over?” he said.

Kennedy also said the fact that the department doesn’t alert prosecutors to deputies who do not fall under the transparency law is problematic.

“I think it’s the latest example of a failure to take seriously and fully honor the requirements of Brady disclosure,” he said.

Williams’ 2017 lawsuit alleged that deputies used unjustified force toward Rogers, who managed bipolar disorder with medication.

Advertisement

A father of three, Rogers graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in accounting and finance and moved to Los Angeles in 2015 to pursue a career in acting, his mother said.

In March 2017, deputies were called to a 24 Hour Fitness in Ladera Heights where Rogers was a member because he was reportedly “acting erratic.”

Later that night, four deputies responded to another call about Rogers at that location. A mental evaluation team was requested but none was available, according to a report by the district attorney’s office. Officials said that Rogers was tasered twice and that he pulled out an electric razor with an extension cord, swinging it while advancing toward a deputy. The deputy fatally shot Rogers, who sustained four gunshot wounds.

The district attorney’s office declined to file charges against the deputy, stating in a 2018 report “there is insufficient evidence to prove that his split-second decision to use deadly force in this situation was unreasonable.”

Advertisement

“He got scared,” Williams said of her son. “He just got scared, and the police just took advantage of the situation.”

The Sheriff’s Department and the county initially objected to a request Williams made in January 2018 for all documents related to the Brady list. And in the days that followed, its counsel failed to cooperate in the discovery dispute, magistrate Judge Charles Eick wrote in a court filing.

Eick recommended a default judgment after determining that they had violated “without legitimate excuse” three court orders to produce the list. He had previously ordered them to pay more than $34,000 in fines to Williams and $500 daily sanctions to the court until they disclosed the list.

In opposing the magistrate judge’s recommendation, the Sheriff’s Department and the county wrote that they were “shocked and embarrassed” to learn of the judge’s orders to produce the list, which they claimed their attorney had kept from them.

Advertisement

The court ultimately allowed Williams’ attorneys to investigate whether the Sheriff’s Department and the county knew or should have known about the order to produce the list and ordered the defendants to produce relevant communications.

A month after the court-ordered deadline for evidence, attorneys for the Sheriff’s Department and the county provided a Jan. 29, 2018, email from Day to a Sheriff’s Department investigator who’d been assigned to the case. The email, which attached the Brady list request, CC’ed a county counsel.

In addition to the email, the court considered a deposition, in which Day said he’d spoken to a different department investigator about producing the list.

Robert Bonner, a member of the Civilian Oversight Commission and a former federal judge, said in a statement that while Birotte’s ruling in Williams’ case may be legally correct, the decision to order the disclosure of the list could have negative repercussions. He expressed concern that plaintiffs in future federal civil rights lawsuits will routinely request the list as leverage to force the county to settle cases or have a court issue a default judgment.

Advertisement

“Unfortunately, requiring this will likely deter the creation of a Brady list by the LASD, a list which I believe should be made available to the district attorney’s office so that it can discharge its obligations,” he said.

Upon hearing of the default judgment, Williams said she felt “just faith in God.”

“I just hate that my son had to suffer that type of ending for his life,” she said. “I pray that God don’t let me become bitter or want to see something bad to happen to them [the deputies] … I can try to heal from here.”


Advertisement