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Council OKs Settlements in Police Suits

Courts: In addition to $3.2 million in combined payments, LAPD will stop controversial restraint method.

July 23, 1997|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday agreed to pay $3.2 million and eliminate a controversial procedure of restraining violent suspects, settling two unrelated wrongful-death lawsuits involving the city's Police Department.

In one case, the council approved a $750,000 settlement with the family of a 25-year-old man who died after officers shackled his hands and feet together behind his back. In the other case, a $2.45-million settlement was agreed upon in the killing of a 27-year-old knife-wielding mother who was shot nine times--with seven of the bullets entering her back.

Despite the smaller monetary payout, the shackling case had greater policy implications for the LAPD and public.

Under Tuesday's agreement, the LAPD will no longer practice a restraint referred to by some as a form of hogtying, and by police as hobbling.

According to the county coroner, the practice contributed to the August 1995 death of Bruce Klobuchar, who police said appeared to be under the influence of drugs and was causing a disturbance.

Over the last five years, the city has paid out nearly $3 million to resolve hogtying-related cases involving the LAPD. As a result, the City Council and the Los Angeles Police Commission have decided to ban the procedure to minimize the city's liability.

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"The city is wise to settle this case," said attorney Carol Watson, who represented Klobuchar's parents. "As a result of the ban on hogtying, the in-custody deaths for LAPD will plummet. The city should have taken this step many years ago."

Some LAPD officers, however, contend that without the restraint procedure, police may have to resort to greater levels of force to subdue violent suspects. Additionally, they say the practice is much less restrictive than traditional hogtying.

Watson said many police departments throughout the country have banned the practice, which several medical experts say interferes with breathing and increases the risk of sudden death, particularly when overweight, excited or drug-intoxicated individuals are placed on their stomachs.

Watson said her research has linked more than 40 LAPD in-custody deaths to the restraint procedure.

Assistant City Atty. Byron R. Boeckman disputed that figure and contends that there is "some good expert opinions available" that suggest the in-custody deaths are more directly attributed to the "hysteria and subsequent anatomical stress brought on by drug or narcotic induced dementia."

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In the Klobuchar case, officers received a call of a violent male disturbing a Sun Valley neighborhood. Officers who encountered Klobuchar said he appeared to be incoherent, agitated and under the influence of drugs. Unable to restrain him with electrical darts and pepper spray, they finally swarmed him and managed to restrain him with the hobbling procedure.

Minutes later, as Klobuchar--whose mother is a former LAPD officer--lay on his side, officers noticed he was not breathing. He died a short time later, and the coroner attributed his death to "intoxication of multiple drugs and restraint asphyxia."

The $2.45-million settlement Tuesday involved 27-year-old Sonji Taylor, who was shot to death after allegedly threatening officers with a knife.

According to city documents, Taylor was confronted by officers on the roof of a hospital, holding her 3-year-old son and a large knife. Taylor refused to release the boy or drop the knife.

Officers squirted her with pepper spray, causing her to release the child. She then lunged at police and was shot, authorities said.

Half of the settlement funds will go to Taylor's son and half to her mother--who has adopted and is raising her grandson.

"No amount of money will ever return Sonji Taylor to her son or her mother, but this settlement will provide the financial means for the family to begin to put this tragic chapter behind them," said Carl E. Douglas, managing attorney for Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s law firm, which represented the family.

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