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Editorial: You owe another $5 for excessive force by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies. Pay up

A rally for Andrés Guardado, who was fatally shot by an L.A. County sheriff's deputy in 2020
L.A. County supervisors on Tuesday agreed to pay $47.6 million for alleged misconduct by the Sheriff’s Department, including $8 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the parents of security guard Andrés Guardado, who was fatally shot by a deputy on June 21, 2020, in Gardena.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Five bucks. A fiver, a five-spot, a fin. If you live in Los Angeles County, that’s how much you owe for the legal settlements the Board of Supervisors approved Tuesday for five people killed or injured by sheriff’s deputies’ actions. Nearly $50 million, spread out over 10 million residents, averages out to $5 a person. Pony up.

No, that’s not the annual tally. That’s just this week. If you haven’t already paid the $3 you owe from the August jury verdict in the lawsuit over the photos of Kobe Bryant and others taken at the helicopter crash site in early 2020, add that in too. And be ready to keep paying.

The county’s latest settlements, totaling $47.6 million, go to the families of Andrés Guardado, shot in the back five times by a sheriff’s deputy; Eric Briceno, who died after deputies beat and tased him in his home; Pedro Lopez, a bystander shot dead in his own backyard by deputies pursuing a suspect; and Rufino Paredes, who died by suicide while in Sheriff’s Department custody. And to Timothy Neal, shot by deputies in his own bedroom and left paraplegic.

Imagine how long L.A. County residents would put up with getting monthly bills for sheriff’s deputies’ excessive force. Taxpayers would demand reforms, pronto — tougher hiring and performance standards, better training, smarter tactics. And certainly, tougher sheriff accountability. A leader who keeps costing the county millions of dollars, or even an occasional $5 collected from each person, would be out.

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But maybe it’s the supervisors and county lawyers who are being too careless with taxpayer money? OK, maybe they, too, should be paid or fired based on how much liability is racked up on their watch.

Sheriff misconduct often results in huge payouts to injured parties, but it’s the public that pays, leaving law enforcement agencies little incentive to improve. They will become accountable only when they start picking up the tab for the damage they cause.

Aug. 31, 2022

It doesn’t work that way, but it should. Sheriffs and county supervisors should be evaluated at least in part on the cost of the injuries inflicted by those working under their direction. Better laws and oversight are important to curb Sheriff’s Department and police misconduct (and to keep deputies and officers safe, too, by the way). But unnecessary killings and injuries by law enforcement officers aren’t likely to stop as long as those agencies are permitted to pass along the costs of their conduct to political leaders, who then pass them along to the taxpayers in the form of lesser services.

County voters are currently electing a sheriff and one of five supervisors. L.A. city voters are choosing half their City Council, plus their city controller (who will write the checks), their city attorney (who will settle or fight the lawsuits) and their mayor — who will appoint the next chief of police or reappoint the current one. Evaluations of all of them should be based on not just how safe they keep us, but how much they cost us — and whether the latter is a reasonable price for the former.

Creating that link between performance and accountability won’t be simple, but private companies and some municipalities do it all the time, by partnering with insurance companies and risk managers to identify their costliest policies and personnel and making necessary changes. Los Angeles could do it too. In the meantime, voters should tell the officials they’re about to elect that they’re tired of paying twice for law enforcement — once to employ officers, and a second time when they needlessly injure or kill.

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