YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Hundreds of Legal Claims Against Deputies Never Probed

Civilian watchdog says L.A. County missed chances to cut liability, uncover wrongdoing.

October 14, 2002|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department never investigated more than 800 claims of wrongdoing by its deputies over the last decade, losing chances to uncover misconduct and limit liability, according to the agency's new civilian watchdog.

The department only this year began requiring a review of all legal claims filed against deputies at the urging of the Office of Independent Review, an agency staffed by former prosecutors and civil rights attorneys.For 10 years, the office found, the Sheriff's Department often simply declined to review the performances of deputies who, in legal claims against the county, had been alleged to have violated department policies and the law.

The office's first report, obtained by The Times and scheduled for release this week, provides a benchmark for a nationally watched experiment in civilian oversight of law enforcement.

Sheriff Lee Baca proposed the office at the height of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart scandal. The team of six civil rights attorneys has watched over the Sheriff's Department's shoulder for the last year as it has policed itself.

The most wide-ranging fault found by the Office of Independent Review was in the way the Sheriff's Department addressed legal claims, typically those filed with the county as precursors to lawsuits.

The claims allege all levels of misconduct, from improperly served search warrants and reckless driving to illegal shootings.

The department routinely investigates complaints filed by the public, and cases involving extreme use of force. But hundreds of claims that did not fall into those categories were never investigated internally.

Among them was one lodged by Patricia Gutierrez.

In 1994, Gutierrez was arrested by two deputies on suspicion of having made terrorist threats and attacking a neighbor with whom she had a long-running feud, according to county records. Charges were later dropped.

Gutierrez then filed a claim against the department in 1995, alleging that deputies had improperly entered her home, arrested her, subjected her to illegal searches and fondled her in the East Los Angeles sheriff's station.

Gutierrez attributed the harassment to a complaint that she had filed against Deputy Dan Bartlett, who she said had been angered when she brought her boyfriend to a party that Bartlett had invited her to years earlier.

The incident with the neighbors, Gutierrez argued, had been investigated by other deputies earlier. The county rejected the claim, leading Gutierrez to file a lawsuit. In court papers, county attorneys argued that the Sheriff's Department had operated properly.

But a Los Angeles jury sided with Gutierrez and awarded her $2 million. The county dropped its appeal, and agreed to pay Gutierrez a $1.1-million settlement in April.

But even with the settlement underway, the Sheriff's Department still had not investigated the conduct of the deputies.

"Their answer was, it was just a runaway judge, it was a runaway jury," said Michael Gennaco, the former federal civil rights prosecutor who now heads the Office of Independent Review.

At the urging of the office, an investigation is now underway.

Automatic Reviews

Some legal claims were investigated by unit commanders, but the office found that those reviews were often substandard. Now all claims are automatically reviewed.

"We were all caught off guard, believing that everything was being done properly, and it wasn't," Baca said of the lack of investigation into legal claims.

"Had we not had the OIR, we probably would still be bumbling, in some respects, with the policies that are in place."

The duties of the office's attorneys include responding to the scenes of shootings involving officers and monitoring internal administrative probes of deputies.

In its report, the office, which was created by the county Board of Supervisors, stated that it had encountered no resistance from the Sheriff's Department and had unfettered access to records.

"What's going on in Los Angeles is different than just about anywhere because they put a unit of civil rights attorneys right in the department," said Sue Quinn, president of the National Assn. of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, said the creation of his agency showed a "cultural change" in the Sheriff's Department.

"At least up to now, the sheriff has allowed us to shine a flashlight into any corner we want and see what we discover," he said.

In its report, the Office of Independent Review praises the quality of internal investigations, but also notes a number of cases in which it says scrutiny has fallen short.

In perhaps the most controversial case, the Sheriff's Department never conducted an internal investigation of the much-publicized death of a mentally ill inmate at Twin Towers jail who was asphyxiated while being restrained by deputies, according to the report.

Los Angeles Times Articles