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L.A. County Payouts For Sheriff Misconduct Have Increased Almost Tenfold Over The Last Five Years

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The L.A. County Sheriff's Department (Photo via Facebook)
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Los Angeles County paid almost $51 million to settle misconduct claims with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department last year, up from $5.6 million in 2011, according to the L.A. Times. The steep rise in costs comes from a number of factors, including delayed payouts from years-long cases as well as stronger public scrutiny and mistrust of law enforcement.

The misconduct claims include sexual assault, excessive force, and wrongful imprisonment. They also include certain high-profile cases such as the wrongful death of producer John Winkler in 2014. After receiving calls about a knife assault at a West Hollywood apartment, sheriff's deputies mistook Winkler for an assailant and fatally shot him. The County paid $5 million to Winkler's mother and $2.5 million to another victim of a gunshot wound from the altercation. Another high profile and expensive case involved the rape of a woman during a traffic stop, to whom L.A. County paid $6 million.

Experts say the rise in costs comes from national scrutiny of law enforcement, discouraging jurors from giving deputies the benefit of the doubt and encouraging prosecutors to seek higher settlement costs. The recent proliferation of body cameras and videos of police misconduct also means jurors are less inclined to believe a sheriff's testimony without video support, according to Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor.

While cases of misconduct have risen in the past five years, there has been a decline since the end of former Sheriff Lee Baca's tenure with the department. There were 132 cases filed for the fiscal year ending June 2016, a 25% drop from the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Baca resigned in 2014.

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Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Lee Baca's replacement, is concerned the cost of litigation is taking money away from the communities. At the same time, he has reiterated a level of expectations to his officers with zero tolerance for serious misconduct, according to the L.A. Times.

Los Angeles is not the only city in the country to see a rise in litigation costs in recent years. While the reason for settlement costs varies city to city—cities have different payment caps and varying speeds of legal processes—a trend has emerged, according to the Washington Post. Chicago, Baltimore, New York City, and Oakland have had similarly steep payouts in recent years.