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County's Police Win Back Pay

Labor: Judge orders officers at hospitals, parks and other facilities to get $60 million and same wages as sheriff's deputies. Appeal vowed.

June 19, 2002|HECTOR BECERRA and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A judge ruled Tuesday that Los Angeles County must pay $60 million in back wages to the 500-plus officers of the Office of Public Safety, who patrol hospitals, parks and other county facilities.

County officials called Superior Court Judge Victor Chavez's decision possibly the largest verdict ever against the county. It also comes at a time when officials are considering closing hospitals for lack of funds.

"I cannot remember anything of this magnitude before," said County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman.

The ruling follows a jury verdict June 7 that said the county racially discriminated against a police force made up mostly of blacks and Latinos.

County attorneys said Chavez ruled that the county must pay the plaintiffs seven years' back pay totaling $60 million, boost their pensions retroactively--again back seven years--to match those of other law enforcement officers, and raise their salaries to the level of sheriff's deputies. Plaintiffs' attorneys have argued that county officers are paid about 30% to 40% less than deputies.

Altogether, the verdict could cost the county $100 million, plus increased yearly costs, those attorneys have estimated.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich called the decision "boneheaded" and predicted that it would be overturned on appeal.

The "Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the county safety police have two different functions and responsibilities," Antonovich said. "The requirements are different, as are the responsibilities. The board strongly believes this decision will be reversed at the appellate level because of this."

But a lawyer for the officers has said it was the county that made a foolish decision when it chose not to settle and instead go to trial. A settlement could have saved the ailing county at least $35 million, plaintiffs' attorney Jack O'Donnell said last week.

He and his colleagues would not comment Tuesday pending a news conference today.

If upheld, the verdict would be a financial blow to the county. Next week, county supervisors are slated to approve a budget that cuts $50 million from the Sheriff's Department and reduces social services and library hours. They also will consider more than $100 million in cuts to the Department of Health Services, which faces an $800-million deficit and the prospect of closing 11 clinics, ending inpatient services at High Desert Hospital and eliminating thousands of jobs.

In October, the county is expected to consider closing even more health facilities--including converting Harbor-UCLA and Olive View medical centers into clinics. Tuesday's judgment represents enough money to keep Olive View operating at full capacity for one year.

County attorney Calvin House said the county pension fund will have to hire an actuarial firm to determine the retirement benefits owed to the officers.

He added that the county plans to contest the verdict before Chavez and then appeal if that fails.

House said the county did not discriminate and had a fair reason for paying different salaries.

"If you want to be a deputy sheriff, you get more pay, but you have to spend three or four years working in the jails," he said. "Or you can become safety police and begin patrol right away.... We make all of our positions open to everybody. It's up to each individual to decide what type of police officer they want to be."

He argued that the reason the lower-paid force has more minorities is because more apply for positions on it.

But attorneys for the county officers say the suit was about justice for a group of officers who risk their lives, only to be ridiculed by county and Sheriff's Department officials as "sheriff's wannabes."

During a two-week trial, plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the officers have battled street gangs, restrained often violent psychiatric patients and lost colleagues in the line of duty, but have been compensated more like security guards than police. Even county lifeguards get pensions similar to police, while the officers get the same as county secretaries, plaintiffs said.

"Both deputies and county police have to deal with gangs. If a deputy and a county cop get killed while battling gang members, the deputy's family will be taken care of; the county police officer's family gets nothing," O'Donnell said recently.

The ruling is the latest conflict in a nearly century-long dysfunctional relationship between the county and a police force created in 1917 as a group of night watchmen. Over the years, the two sides have squabbled over pay, duties, training and even what the officers should be called.

For decades, the county considered the officers security guards and not full-fledged police officers. Only in the mid-1990s did the county agree to give them the same training and certification that all police officers receive.

Officers argued that the county had a financial interest in portraying them as security guards, making it easier to justify reduced salaries and pensions.

The Sheriff's Department has discussed merging the officers into their agency, but for a variety of reasons, that idea has always been abandoned.

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