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Excessive force legal claims plummet at LA Sheriff’s Department

The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, 10 September 2006.
The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

The number of legal claims alleging excessive use of force and other misconduct by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies fell dramatically for the second year in a row last fiscal year, according to a county report issued Tuesday. 

Claims plunged by 23 percent in the fiscal year that ended last June 30, falling from 643 to 491. The number was 781 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2015.

County Risk Manager Steve Robles attributed the decline to better practices at the Sheriff’s Department. For example, field commanders are now personally involved in developing plans to reduce excessive force and must present those plans to the board of supervisors and county risk managers, said Robles.

"I think you have more ownership now," he said.

The change came three years ago amid soaring litigation costs connected to deputies abusing inmates inside county jails and using excessive force on the streets.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell ordered the new approach after he was elected on a reform platform in the wake of the indictment of former Sheriff Lee Baca, who was found guilty of obstructing a federal investigation into inmate abuses. 

"I would say we are turning the corner," said Capt. Scott Johnson, who oversees risk management at the Sheriff’s Department. "We are no longer dismissing claims as merely the cost of doing business."

Sheriff’s officials are required to develop what is known as a corrective action plan whenever there is a legal claim, settlement or jury verdict against the department of more than $100,000. 

Under the old regime, a lieutenant from the department’s risk management bureau would be responsible for developing the plan.

"We did not involve other units in the discussion," Johnson said. 

Now, division chiefs, commanders and captains closest to the problem must develop the plan.

"It’s a 100 percent departure" from the previous practice, he said.

Johnson said commanders resisted at first for logistical reasons, but now it’s a routine part of the process of trying to reduce legal payouts. 

The change has won praise from county lawyers.

"I think there is a major effort by the Sheriff’s Department to address claims and lawsuits and try to reduce the number," said county Litigation Cost Manager Steven Estabrook.

The sheriff still costs the county more than any other department in legal payouts. The county paid out more than $68 million dollars in settlements, jury verdicts and legal fees in the last fiscal year. That’s up $6 million from the previous fiscal year.

Of that amount, $52 million was related to excessive use of force, wrongful detentions and other misconduct, said Estabrook.  Some settlements and verdicts are related to claims that were filed before the last fiscal year.

By comparison, the department with the second highest legal payouts was Public Works at $16 million.

Estabrook noted one sheriff's case accounted for $10 million of the total.  

The county agreed to pay Francisco Carrillo, Jr. that amount after his murder conviction was overturned. Carrillo, who spent 20 years in prison before his conviction was overturned, argued that sheriff’s deputies improperly influenced a witnesses into picking his picture out of a photo lineup.

This story was updated to clarify that Johnson said commanders initially resisted being directly involved in developing corrective action plans for logistical reasons.