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Lawsuits Question Actions of Sheriff's Deputies in 3 Cases

Safety: Agency's finding that its officers did nothing wrong is challenged by lawyers and county supervisors, who OK settlements of claims.

January 23, 2002|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three recent cases involving allegations of misconduct by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies have led to the deaths of two men and the wrongful incarceration of a third, while costing the county $2 million in lawsuits. But none of the more than a dozen deputies involved have been disciplined, according to records and interviews.

In all three cases, internal sheriff's investigations found that the deputies did nothing wrong. Those conclusions have been challenged by civil rights attorneys and county supervisors, who approve settlements of lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department.

As a result, the cases and their settlements are forcing Sheriff Lee Baca to demonstrate his commitment to pursuing allegations of official wrongdoing while still maintaining his fairness in assessing complaints against his deputies. Those questions can take on a political cast this year, as Baca is facing reelection, challenged by two other members of his own department.

The first case cost the county $1.1 million and Bryant Hunter his life. A deputy driving through Compton shot through the windshield of his patrol car at Hunter, who was on foot, and there was a brief chase. Hunter died about a week later from his wounds. Although the deputy said Hunter appeared to be reaching for a gun when he was shot, evidence later raised questions about the official account of the incident.

In the second case, Calvin Newburn spent 27 months in state prison before an appeals court ordered him released, ruling that two deputies' testimony that they had witnessed him selling rock cocaine was not credible.

And finally, there are the questions that have surfaced regarding Kevin Evans, a mentally ill inmate who died as 13 deputies tried to restrain him in a downtown Los Angeles jail complex.

Critics say that although those investigations are unrelated, they raise a consistent concern about the Sheriff's Department. In each instance, the agency defended its deputies' behavior even as county lawyers agreed to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle legal claims.

Although two of the three incidents occurred during the previous administration, the lawsuit settlements have been reached under Baca, who has repeatedly spoken of the need to crack down on wrongdoing in his agency and created a unique outside monitoring unit to do just that. The cases are under review by that group, the Office of Independent Review, headed by former federal civil rights prosecutor Michael Gennaco.

In an interview, Baca cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the conduct of deputies based on litigation. As he and others noted, lawyers sometimes agree to settlements for strategic or cost reasons, even when they do not believe their clients have done anything wrong.

"I don't think the public should assume that a lawsuit is conclusive evidence of wrongdoing," the sheriff said. "The nature of the cases at hand is complex."

The sheriff said he would wait for Gennaco's findings.

"That's why I pushed hard to have this office created, so we could learn from our experiences going into court," Baca said.

Gennaco said he would look into the actions of deputies as well as larger questions raised by the incidents.

"Our fundamental concern is to prevent tragedies like what have occurred from occurring" again, he said. "That's not to say that we won't be making conclusions in these matters on the behavior of some deputies."

The Board of Supervisors referred the cases to Gennaco in the last three months. Supervisor Gloria Molina, the Sheriff's Department's most vocal critic on the board, said it may be up to Gennaco to do what she doubts Baca is able to do.

"The brass doesn't have the courage to stand strong and implement discipline," she said.

Bryant Hunter

The most recent case settled by the supervisors involves the fatal shooting of Hunter.

He was walking down Compton Avenue just after midnight on March 12, 1998, when two deputies on their way to work spotted him holding what they believed was a paper bag containing an open container of alcohol, according to county and court records. Although the Sheriff's Department did not patrol Compton at the time, carrying an open container of alcohol in public violates county law.

The deputies said that they steered their car toward Hunter and that when the cruiser was 10 to 15 feet away, Deputy Shawn Jones ordered Hunter to walk toward the car. Then, allegedly thinking that Hunter was reaching for a gun, Jones pulled his own pistol and fired once through the windshield, according to district attorney files.

Hunter fled down the street, and Jones fired another shot--this time through the open driver's door window. His partner, Dennis Missel, stepped from the car and also fired several shots, according to legal papers.

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