The city of Los Angeles has reached a $250,000 out-of-court settlement with the family of a police officer who was shot to death two years ago during a traffic dispute with a fellow LAPD officer.
Although the controversial Studio City shooting, which involved an off-duty officer and an undercover narcotics detective, was the focus of many news stories at the time, officials with the city attorney's office minimized public scrutiny of the 6-month-old settlement by structuring the agreement so that the three plaintiffs each received compensation below the monetary threshold that requires City Council approval.
As a result, some members of the council and the Los Angeles Police Commission were unaware that the high-profile case had been settled.
Under a city ordinance, the council must approve all settlements over $100,000. That threshold, however, applies to each plaintiff and not an entire lawsuit, a nuance even some council members said they did not know. Although the total settlement reached $250,000, none of the plaintiffs--Officer Kevin Gaines' widow and the couple's two young daughters--received more than $100,000.
Some council members said they were concerned about the settlement and wondered why the city attorney agreed to settle the case when police and the district attorney had concluded that the slain officer was at fault. They also criticized the city attorney's office for the manner in which the settlement was handled.
"The idea that the city attorney's office would orchestrate a settlement payout that seeks to avoid full council involvement is unacceptable and frankly deplorable," said Councilwoman Laura Chick, who heads the council's Public Safety Committee.
"We sign the checks, we're responsible for taxpayers' dollars. We need to be part of the decision-making process," Chick said.
Chick added that she would like to know how many times multiple plaintiff cases were settled by the city attorney's office for a total of more than $100,000, but never approved by the entire City Council.
Councilman Joel Wachs added: "I think it's an absolute outrage. It's an abuse of authority to not allow the council to decide such an extremely important public policy issue."
The only council member consulted about the settlement was Richard Alatorre, who, in his role as the Budget Committee chairman, is authorized to approve settlements below $100,000. Officials with the city attorney's office said Chief Bernard C. Parks, who ruled last year that the shooting was "in policy," was also briefed on the settlement and raised no objections. Police Commission President Edith Perez was also aware of the settlement, a city attorney said.
Parks declined to comment.
Judge Wrote Protest Letter
Chief Assistant City Atty. Thomas C. Hokinson, who helped negotiate the out-of-court agreement, said the settlement was a sound decision, minimizing the city's potential financial liability. He said the city attorney's office handled the case properly and did not attempt to circumvent council oversight.
Hokinson said the city believed it had a strong case, but that there was no guarantee a jury would see it the same way.
Retired Superior Court Judge R. William Schoettler, who presided over the settlement negotiations, wrote to Parks stating that he thought the settlement was political and meant to dispel significant adverse publicity for the city and the Police Department, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Times.
"Had the matter been submitted to me for a determination, I would have found in favor of the city of Los Angeles," the judge wrote. "However, the matter was presented to me for settlement purposes and both sides indicated a desire to resolve the matter without the publicity attendant upon a court or jury trial."
The shooting, which occurred March 18, 1997, was an embarrassing incident for the LAPD because it pitted two officers against each other in what appeared to be a case of road rage. It also heightened racial tensions within the department because Gaines was black and the other officer, Frank Lyga, is white.
According to police accounts, Lyga was working an undercover narcotics operation at the time he became involved in a traffic dispute with Gaines, who was off duty. Apparently, neither man knew the other was a police officer.
Gaines allegedly pulled a gun on Lyga to threaten him. Lyga, fearing for his life, shot Gaines. According to a district attorney's review, Gaines allegedly was involved in four road rage incidents in the 12 months before his encounter with Lyga. Those incidents, however, only came to light after the publicity from the shooting and three of the complainants had ties to law enforcement.
In his letter, Judge Schoettler said he believed "Det. Lyga acted in accordance with LAPD guidelines at all relevant times."