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A group of Sheriff's Deputies wearing protective vests walk alongside a patrol car in what appears to be a residential area.
Sheriff's Deputies in LA; image courtesy of Ho New, Reuters

Los Angeles County paid out almost $51 million over its Sheriff’s Department in 2016.

Making use of data provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, an LA Times report published Sunday drew a bleak conclusion about a troubling trend. Since 2011, the County has been paying an increasing amount of money to plaintiffs who claim to have been victimized or profiled by law enforcement.

Six years ago, the County shelled out $5.6 million in settlements. By 2012 that number had risen to $15 million, followed by $30.9 million in 2014. By the time Donald Trump had displaced Hillary Clinton and clinched the general election, Los Angeles was on the hook for $50.9 million in settlements – ten times what the courts had ordered at the beginning of the decade.

The cases being brought against the Sheriff’s Department vary predictably in their scope and severity. Richard Winston of the LA Times listed a series of disturbing incidents in his April article: $6 million to a woman who had been raped by a deputy during a traffic stop. $7 million following a flurry of lawsuits filed in the wake of two hostages who had been shot – one of whom died, the other of whom was critically injured – by deputies in West Hollywood.

Winston writes, “The judgments and settlements often involved allegations of serious misconduct against law enforcement officers, including sexual assault, excessive force, shooting unarmed subjects and wrongful imprisonment.”

Image via Greg Lilly, Flickr

He adds that a handful of large and highly publicized cases with large payouts contributed to the County’s staggering settlement bill. Many pieces of litigation which were settled in 2016 had origins in incidents which took place years ago, meaning the settlements shouldn’t be taken as a total indictment of the Sheriff’s Department as it operates today.

The County Counsel itself has provided figures which amounted to almost $132 million in costs for settlements and attorneys’ fees in 2016. The Sheriff’s Department’s legal woes account for just under half the total amount.

Witness LA writer Taylor Walker points out in another April article that 12 out of the 18 County’s settlements of $1 million or more were the result of complaints against the Sheriff’s Department.

Legal experts employed by Los Angeles suspect several different factors are contributing to the rising cost of placating victims of law enforcement. Jurors, according to Winston, are less likely to “give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt.” They’re also more likely to award larger settlements to plaintiffs whose cases are deemed credible.

“The social climate of today has had an important impact on trials and outcomes,” said Steven E. Estabrook, the litigation cost manager for Los Angeles County’s counsel office. “Higher awards and higher costs are getting more common.”

2016 has both jokingly and somewhat seriously been termed a “terrible year.” Publications like Slate and The Telegraph even put together statistics and crunched numbers to see how it stacked up to other infamous dates, from the Black Death in 1348 to mass riots in the wake of World War I.

Americans from all corners of the country might live in a safer today than was enjoyed by our forebears. However, that argument might not go over well with the taxpayers being forced to float a $50 million bill for a Sheriff’s Department which can’t seem to steer clear of notoriety.

The denizens of the United States’ “Second City” might hope law enforcement bucks the trend for 2017. With the ways things have been shaping up, the costs of settling could soon soar out of control.

Sources

Is 2016 the Worst Year in History?

LA County Payouts For LASD Misconduct And Other Lawsuits Rise Alarmingly

Sheriff’s Department misconduct-claim payouts have soared, topping $50 million last year

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