LAPD, get a handle on officer lawsuits

There are a number of curious — and, in some ways, troubling — trends at work in the litigation record of the Los Angeles Police Department. This city’s police officers appear to be abnormally litigious, suing their department at rates far higher than their counterparts in other big cities. Juries here seem inclined to dole out substantial awards, sometimes for relatively minor injuries: One motor officer whose demotion cost him $27,000 in lost income was awarded $1 million at trial. And a shift from settling these cases to fighting them out in court has yielded mixed benefits: It may ultimately discourage frivolous suits, but it has resulted in some puzzling and costly verdicts.

City officials are now reviewing policies and practices to see if there are better ways of defending the public purse. There are some encouraging signs. As the LAPD begins to shed its old reputation for violence, juries that once routinely sided against police officers in cases of alleged excessive force are listening more closely to the department’s arguments. Also, the city has addressed a longstanding source of frustration. In years past, it would often pay judgments or settlements in connection with accusations of police misconduct but then never bother to investigate whether the misconduct occurred. Thanks to the consent decree between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice, those cases began to be investigated — and continue to be, even though the decree is no longer in force. That allows the department to discipline or fire those who committed the abuses.

The persistence of cases brought by officers against the department, however, is expensive, setting the city back more than $18 million since 2005. City officials defend the practice of forcing more cases to trial: Settling them early had created an expectation of easy money and encouraged lawsuits. But if the city is going to go to trial rather than seek settlements, it must be sure to do so with cases it can win and with lawyers who can defend them effectively. The city lawyers who handle these cases have a decidedly mixed record. One assistant city attorney dropped a case mid-trial to go on vacation, leaving it to another to complete. And Bill Carter, the office’s top deputy, concedes that lawyers on his staff have missed deadlines and otherwise bungled cases.

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich should insist on professionalism and excellence in defending these cases, and the City Council should inquire as to whether the city is adequately staffed in this area. The LAPD, meanwhile, has a responsibility to rid itself of supervisors who harass, discriminate or retaliate — violating the rights of police officers, opening up the department to lawsuits and ultimately wasting taxpayer money.