Lancaster accuses county of $10-million “illegal profit” on Sheriff’s Department contract

Members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
Deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, shown here at a crime scene in 2021, provide policing services for the City of Lancaster through a $26-million annual contract. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The city of Lancaster has sued Los Angeles County, saying the Sheriff’s Department is raking in an “illegal profit” of more than $10 million by overcharging dozens of cities for its policing services.

Like more than 40 other cities in the county — including Palmdale, Compton, Carson and West Hollywood — Lancaster pays for sheriff’s deputies to police its area. But amid a staffing crisis, the Sheriff’s Department isn’t assigning as many deputies to Lancaster as the city has paid for, says the suit, which was filed in March.

Instead, existing deputies are working more overtime to make up for it. But more overtime costs less than more deputies, and the county allegedly isn’t passing along the savings, according to the lawsuit.


Attorneys for the city filed the case as a proposed class-action on behalf of all 42 of the county’s contract cities, pending the court’s approval.

The department may not be collecting enough in its pacts with 41 cities, which fail to specify the amount or cost of patrol services, studies show.

May 13, 2003

Mayor R. Rex Parris said Lancaster’s lawsuit aims to hold the county accountable, but stressed that the city still supports the sheriff’s deputies who patrol its streets.

“Let me make this crystal clear: Our deputies are our community’s guardians,” he wrote in an emailed statement to The Times this week. “It pains us to see them pushed to their limits, short-staffed, and scheduled to work overtime, compromising their ability to protect and serve.”

The Sheriff’s Department said in an emailed statement this week that it had not officially been served with the suit, but reiterated its commitment to policing local communities.

“We are dedicated to maintaining fair and transparent financial practices while delivering high-quality public safety services to our communities,” the statement said.

Spokespeople for the county declined to comment.

Since the mid-1950s, some cities in Los Angeles County have avoided the headache and expense of having their own police departments by contracting with the Sheriff’s Department for policing services.


For years, there were no state laws regulating how much the county could charge for those services. But in 1973 — after several cities accused the county of overcharging them to fund general operational expenses — the state Legislature created a statute banning counties from marking up the price of their policing services.

Under the current five-year contract, Lancaster pays more than $25 million to the Sheriff’s Department each year — a figure that includes pay, benefits and an 11% liability surcharge for about 70 deputies. But filling all 70 of those positions has become a challenge.

By late last year, department records show, more than 20% of sworn positions were vacant or held by deputies who were out on medical leave, relieved of duty or otherwise unavailable to work.

That’s why, according to the lawsuit, for the past several years the county has assigned only 51 deputies to the Lancaster station. To bridge the gap, the lawsuit says, those deputies need to work more than 32,000 hours of overtime per year, at an estimated cost of $3.2 million. That expense is about $1 million less than it would cost to pay for the benefits and salaries of 18 more deputies.

But the city says the county isn’t passing along the savings.

“The county engages in this same practice with respect to other contract cities,” the suit says. “By doing so, the county makes an illegal profit off the contract cities.”

The lawsuit estimates that the “illegal profit” from all the contract cities totals more than $10 million for deputy pay alone — though the suit says the true figure could be higher after accounting for sergeants, lieutenants and higher-ranking officials.


It’s not clear whether leaders in other contract cities are aware of the lawsuit, as several mayors did not respond to The Times’ requests to comment. One who did respond deferred to the California Contract Cities Assn., a group that represents 80 contract cities across the state.

Marcel Rodarte, the association’s executive director, told The Times he hoped both sides would “reach an amicable resolution” after reviewing contract data.

“We are also well aware of the ongoing personnel issues within the department but are hopeful that these difficulties will subside under the current sheriff’s leadership,” he said. “We are currently working with the department to resolve many of the most pressing issues our cities have faced with ensuring contract compliance and minimizing liabilities relating to law enforcement.”

The cost of policing contracts — and the rising cost of legal liability from them — has been a repeated source of controversy in the county’s 42 contract cities.

In the early 2000s, an outside audit found that the Sheriff’s Department was keeping such sloppy records it might not have been collecting enough money from contract cities.

But costs went up, and, by the late 2010s, some cities had begun raising concerns about the growing expense of legal settlements stemming from misconduct, abuse and shootings by deputies. Jim Ledford, mayor of Palmdale at the time, said liability costs were “out of this world” and wished the county would cover them.


In one case, Los Angeles County paid more than $6 million to a woman who had been raped by a sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop.

April 9, 2017

After Alex Villanueva took over the department in 2018, some cities began raising concerns about whether some of the sheriff’s controversial decisions — including rehiring certain troubled deputies — would lead to expensive lawsuits that could increase legal payouts and insurance costs.

At the time, the Lancaster mayor said he wasn’t worried about the sheriff’s hiring decisions but flagged the department’s staffing problems as a cause for concern, saying that forcing deputies to work 16-hour shifts could be a problem for public safety.

“I really don’t care about how the sheriff manages individual personnel decisions,” Parris said in 2019. “I care about whether the people in Lancaster are safer.”

Two years later, officials in Compton accused the Sheriff’s Department of “rampant” fraud, claiming the understaffed agency routinely charged the city for patrol work that was not actually done.

The new allegations out of Lancaster come months after the city announced it would form its own public safety agency. In September, city officials said at a news conference that the new local police department will respond to low-level crimes in an effort to relieve the workloads of overextended sheriff’s deputies.