Jurors and judges found their misconduct so repellent they awarded $23 million to the victims of a melee with 28 Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, the largest monetary judgment ever imposed on an American law enforcement agency.
But in the nine years since a group of Samoan Americans were beaten by the deputies at a bridal shower in Cerritos, none of the deputies sued in connection with the fight has been disciplined. And, according to Sheriff Sherman Block, it is unlikely that any ever will be.
Trial court and appellate decisions to the contrary, the department continues to insist that the 28 acted within the scope of their duties on the evening of Feb. 11, 1989. In fact, several deputies involved in the incident have been promoted, including three who have made the rank of sergeant--allowing them to supervise the conduct of other deputies.
Alleging that witnesses for the plaintiffs falsified testimony, the sheriff said it's "far too late" to take action against the deputies, who arrived at the home of Arthur Dole en masse after receiving reports of fighting in the streets. "A lot of them are not even with us anymore," said Block, whose department has never admitted any wrongdoing in the melee.
According to department sources, nine deputies involved in the case have since left the force. Fourteen still are on patrol, many working out of the Lakewood station. And five have been placed in "special assignments," working as detectives in the department's homicide division and on gang detail.
One of the deputies has been transferred to the Catalina Island station, while another is a regular on the "Cops" television show.
Only one has left amid allegations of wrongdoing, which stemmed from another incident, in which he pleaded no contest about a year ago to stealing money from the narcotics division.
All this has angered civil rights advocates and attorneys for the party-goers, who say that the department condones a "pattern and practice" of abuse.
"We're paying tax dollars for these guys to break the law and get away with it," said lawyer Garo Mardirossian, who along with at-
torney Hugh Manes, represented the 35 plaintiffs. "Something has got to be done when there is this much evidence that the officers have gone wild. . . . They've got to go in and punish them. If they don't, it sends a message to young cadets, 'Hey guys, we won't prosecute you. In fact, we'll promote you.' "
Attorney Carol Watson--who has represented numerous clients in misconduct cases against the Sheriff's Department--said the sheriff's decision not to punish the deputies reflects a "head-in-the-sand" mentality.
"The deputies not only physically abused people, but they committed perjury on numerous occasions," Watson said. "The two most corrupting factors in law enforcement in this county are unwarranted violence and the lying about violence."
But the way that department officials see it, the fight was "mutual combat" and many of the deputies were victims of the party-goers. "We had nine deputies injured that night," said Block, who is up for reelection in June. "They were hit with hunks of ice and lava rocks."
He added: "As I recall, the investigation at the time could not identify any deputies as having engaged in misconduct."
Sheriff's officials--who conducted an extensive internal affairs investigation--argue that the party-goers were the ones who started the fight, something they said witnesses later lied about.
And although a neighbor videotaped the brawl, the department contends that the taping began after the melee was in progress. If it had recorded the incident from the beginning, it would have shown that the deputies were attacked first, officials say.
In the end, however, the jury didn't buy the deputies' claim that members of the Dole family members and their friends greeted them by hurling rocks and bottles when they arrived at the scene.
After listening to testimony from more than 100 witnesses and repeatedly watching the neighbor's videotape, the jury ruled that the deputies used excessive force and made false arrests.
Several members of the racially mixed jury said in interviews in 1995 that deputies and their supervisors repeatedly shaded the truth or lied outright in their courtroom testimony, apparently as part of a lingering cover-up of their out-of-control behavior.
The jury also found that the department engaged in "deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights" of the party-goers. Though the department pursued criminal charges against the 36 people arrested in the incident, all charges ultimately were dropped.
The civil court jury originally awarded the plaintiffs $15.9 million in damages, including $3.8 million to David Dole; then the judge tacked on $2.3 million in fees. Dole's father, Arthur, who had thrown the wedding shower for his daughter, Melinda Dole Paopao, was awarded $1 million.