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Deputies' Sickout Goes Into 2nd Day

September 24, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 100 Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies called in sick Tuesday, the second consecutive day of a staged sickout that has disrupted hundreds of criminal cases and forced LAPD officers off patrol to fill in.

As a result of the sickout, as many as 1,800 defendants were not taken to courthouses as scheduled Monday and Tuesday.

The Sheriff's Department bused 920 inmates to court Monday and 1,250 inmates to court Tuesday, giving priority to those defendants who were already on trial or whose trials had to begin, sheriff's officials said.

Deputies are in contract negotiations with Los Angeles County. The union declared an impasse and is in mediation on the pay contract, which expired in January, said Steve Remige, vice president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. The contract dealing with benefits and retirement expires Sept. 30.

Remige said deputies are frustrated because their ranks are down and many deputies are having to work forced overtime. "It's starting to catch up to our members," he said.

Of about 250 deputies altogether in the transportation division, 103 called in sick Monday and 93 called in sick Tuesday.

To deal with this week's shortage, Sheriff's Cmdr. Luis Najera said additional deputies have been brought in from other divisions to help.

Because the sheriff's buses require licensed bus drivers, many inmates were transported in patrol cars and vans.

"It's not the same level of service we provide on a daily basis, but we are finding other ways of meeting the need," Najera said.

The LAPD also filled in some of the gaps as officers were reassigned to tasks normally done by deputies. In one particularly hard-hit LAPD area, the 77th Street Division, a quarter of the patrol force Tuesday was diverted from the streets.

"It's just taking a lot of our manpower away from us.... And we are stretched thin anyway," said Sgt. Paul Partridge. "I sympathize with anyone who feels they are underpaid, but they are spreading this misery far beyond where it needs to go."

Hundreds of scheduled hearings were postponed because of the sickout, inevitably creating a backlog for clerks, attorneys and judges.

In one Compton courtroom, Superior Court Judge John J. Cheroske apologized to family members and lawyers because the defendants were not brought to court. He said that if the job action continued today, "we'll really be hurting."

Although many defendants who were supposed to appear in court remained in jail, Cheroske said special arrangements had been made to take Aaron Michael Hammer to court for his scheduled arraignment "to avoid embarrassment in the national press" for the Sheriff's Department.

He was scheduled to arrive at 8:30 a.m. but didn't appear until after 3 p.m., though his arraignment was postponed to another day.

Hammer is charged with killing Yetunde Price, the older half-sister of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

At the downtown criminal courthouse, Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace said a defendant arrived late Monday and Tuesday for his murder trial, making it last longer than necessary.

"Everybody wants the job action to end as quickly as possible," he said. "It affects all the employees that have anything to do with courts."

Head Deputy Public Defender Greg Fisher said the action has caused chaos and confusion.

"For the past couple of days, there have been a lot of attorneys sitting around waiting, hoping their clients would be brought in," he said.

Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said the courts have responded by establishing a triage system. Parachini said it has been much more difficult than usual to operate the criminal courthouses, but said he knew of no cases that were dismissed because defendants were not present.

Najera said he had no idea if deputies would continue to call in sick. "We don't know when it's going to be over," he said. "It's one day at a time."

Times staff writers Jill Leovy and Richard Fausset contributed to this report.

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