A majority of the Los Angeles County supervisors said Tuesday that they support hiring a special counsel to investigate ways to reduce the millions of tax dollars paid annually to resolve lawsuits alleging excessive force by sheriff's deputies.
Supervisors Kenneth Hahn and Gloria Molina said they would join Supervisor Ed Edelman next week in voting to hire an outside attorney to conduct an inquiry into Sheriff's Department policies dealing with use of excessive force, including handling of citizen complaints and discipline of deputies.
The supervisors' comments followed a Times report that the Sheriff's Department has been assessed more than $32 million in court awards and settlements over the last four years.
"This board faces a serious liability crisis resulting from the actions of the Sheriff's Department," Edelman said Tuesday. He noted that as of Sept. 30, "there were 869 lawsuits pending against the Sheriff's Department, collectively requesting hundreds of millions of dollars in damages."
Hahn, who has been a staunch supporter of Sheriff Sherman Block, said he would support hiring a special counsel after Edelman assured him that the proposal has Block's support.
A spokesman for Block said the sheriff would have no further comment on the proposal until the supervisors act. Block told The Times on Monday he would not stand in the way of naming a special counsel as long as it is someone who is "a credible, neutral person."
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, another Block supporter, said he would urge Hahn to reconsider his support. Antonovich said the sheriff has agreed to discuss Edelman's proposal with the board in closed session next week.
Antonovich said he is concerned that the proposal would duplicate the work of a citizen's panel appointed by the sheriff to recommend Christopher Commission-type reforms in the department.
Edelman said he decided to push for hiring a special counsel after Block refused to allow the supervisors to appoint members to the citizens' panel established by the committee. The committee has been criticized for lacking independence from Block.
Supervisor Deane Dana said he is undecided but concerned "about creating anything that could evolve into a witch hunt."
Edelman said the supervisors have a stake in sheriff's operations because court awards and settlements must be funded out of the $12-billion county budget. "Worthy county programs must be curtailed or deferred if sheriff's claims inappropriately drain the general fund," Edelman said.
Court judgments have increased annually, from $635,000 in 1988 to $9.1 million through last Sept. 30. Settlements have averaged $3.5 million a year over the last three fiscal years.
Supervisors delayed until next week a recommendation to pay an additional $1.8 million in settlements for three cases alleging beatings, a maiming and a fatal shooting by deputies.
Edelman has yet to propose candidates for the special counsel.