Responding to allegations of civil rights abuses by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, a federal judge issued an unusual order Monday requiring the Sheriff's Department to adhere to its rules governing use of force and to begin sending him every brutality complaint lodged against the department.
U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. issued the preliminary injunction in a civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of more 70 Lynwood residents who alleged that deputies engaged in "systematic acts of shooting, killing, brutality, terrorism, house-trashing and other acts of lawlessness and wanton abuse of power," especially against minorities.
Hatter directed the Sheriff's Department's 8,000 officers and 4,000 other employees to abide by department regulations, especially those that tell employees when to use force and how to conduct searches.
The judge also told county officials to begin providing him with monthly reports listing excessive-force allegations against deputies.
The judge did not say what action he would take if his order is disobeyed, but county officials could be held in contempt.
To assure that alleged abuses will cease, the plaintiffs have asked the judge to appoint a special master to oversee operations at the Lynwood sheriff's station.
The judge delayed implementation of his court order until 5 p.m. today to allow county lawyers an opportunity to seek an emergency stay from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which county attorneys indicated that they would do.
"It's an extraordinary order," said Kevin S. Reed, western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, attorneys for some of the plaintiffs. "The entire Sheriff's Department could be under a court order by 5 o'clock tomorrow."
Defense attorneys--representing the county, the city of Lynwood, top sheriff's officials and about 20 individual deputies--have vehemently denied the lawsuit's allegations and warned that a preliminary injunction could disrupt local law enforcement.
But Hatter, saying he was "balancing hardships," sided with the plaintiffs in ruling that "all personnel--sworn and civilian" would be covered by his ruling.
"I don't relish getting involved in a situation where the court is asked to supervise ongoing law enforcement activity," said the judge.
However, Hatter said: "We're at a point where I can't ignore the declarations (of excessive force) . . . these are significant issues."
The suit, filed last year, accused deputies of targeting minorities for abuse and subjecting them to racial insults. It is the largest brutality lawsuit to be filed against the Sheriff's Department, which has been mired in a major money-skimming scandal for two years and recently became embroiled in controversy over four fatal shootings by deputies.
No oral testimony has been given in the lawsuit, but the plaintiffs have filed written declarations from citizens alleging that they have been rousted and beaten during raids, falsely arrested and subjected to racial slurs. It was on the basis of these declarations that Hatter made his ruling and took steps to monitor the department.
A copy of the court order was not available late Monday. Neither the judge nor his clerk could be reached for comment.
According to Reed, Hatter's order "enjoins all employees of the Sheriff's Department whether sworn or civilian to do the following pending the final determination of this (Lynwood) case . . . to follow the department's own stated policies and guidelines regarding the use of force and procedures for conducting searches."
The order also directs county officials to submit to the court "copies of reports alleging the use of excessive force that are in the possession of the department on the first of every month."
Hatter did not specify what he would do with the reports, which would be sealed.
Sheriff Sherman Block said his office had not had a chance to review Hatter's decision. "We will, however, have something to say once we have had an opportunity to study it," Block said.
County attorneys said they will ask the appellate court for an emergency stay. "There are other rounds to be played, and we intend to play them," said Patrick T. Meyers, principal deputy county counsel.
If an appeal fails, Meyers said the county is prepared to follow the judge's orders. "He's essentially asking us to do what we maintain that we (already) do, which is follow policies and procedures (of the Sheriff's Department)," Meyers said.
The county attorney said he was unsure whether the judge's order will affect only plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, and other lawyers said they do not know whether the order will apply to the entire Sheriff's Department.
Defense attorneys, however, expressed concern that the judge's order could cause deputies to hesitate unnecessarily before using force and endanger themselves during raids or arrests.