The L.A. Sheriff's Dept. Makes Up 17 Percent Of The County Workforce -- But Nearly Half Of Sexual Misconduct Legal Costs
By Aaron Mendelson & Mary Plummer
A woman raped by a deputy sheriff following a traffic stop. A captain repeatedly pressuring a colleague to cheat on his wife. A campaign of harassment by a clique of sheriff's deputies, waged against a female deputy who didn't go along with unwritten rules.
Allegations in dozens of recent sexual misconduct cases reviewed by KPCC/LAist connected to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department are graphic, disturbing and sometimes bizarre.
Concerns over sexual harassment at the Sheriff's Department are not new: a landmark consent decree required the department to fight sexual harassment for nearly two decades between 1993 and 2012.
In recent years, our analysis found that the Sheriff's Department has played an outsized role in sexual misconduct legal cases involving the county's massive workforce:
- At least $17 million has been paid out by the county in cases tied to sheriff's personnel since July 2004
- That's 47 percent of all money spent on such cases by the county in a 13-year period ending June 2017
- Sheriff's personnel make up 17 percent of all county employees but accounted for about one-third of the county's 134 cases in that period
County Counsel determined which cases represented sexual misconduct by searching employment, general liability, medical malpractice and law enforcement legal filings, at the request of KPCC/LAist.
"We need to do a better job of holding people accountable when they engage in misconduct, and creating a culture free of sexual harassment, sexual violence," said Priscilla Ocen, vice chair of the Civilian Oversight Commission for the Sheriff's Department, after reviewing the findings.
She said failures in oversight have plagued the agency, citing the jails scandal and recent struggle to implement federal laws on prison rape. "I think that those numbers would go down if there was a culture of zero tolerance," Ocen said.
In both number and dollar amount, the cases of sexual misconduct at the Sheriff's Department far outpace other county departments.
Department breakdown: Sexual misconduct settlements, judgments and attorneys' fees, in millions of dollars
Data from Los Angeles County, Fiscal year 2004-2005 - 2016-2017. Departments with less than $500,000 in that time period omitted.
County attorneys stressed that cases are settled without admitting any wrongdoing.
THE STORIES BEHIND THE NUMBERS
In all, KPCC/LAist reviewed 40 Sheriff's Department civil cases identified by the county. They varied widely. Among the allegations contained in the case files:
- Deputy Guadalupe Lopez was told that female deputies were expected to provide sexual favors to male training officers when she arrived at East Los Angeles station in 2011. She was subjected to unwanted leering by several deputies associated with a clique known as the Banditos. After she filed a complaint, she found a dead rat under her car door. Lopez -- whose name has been previously reported -- obtained a settlement of $1.5 million, with attorneys' fees of $215,219.
- Deputy Gabriel Gonzalez detained a member of the public during a traffic stop in Southeast L.A. County in 2002. Gonzalez drove the woman around for over an hour, took her to a secluded railroad yard and raped her in the backseat of the patrol car. Gonzalez was convicted in a criminal case, plead not guilty, and sentenced at trial to 30 years in federal prison. The civil case ended in a settlement of $3.2 million, with attorneys' fees of $327,151.
- Sergeant Charles Dery allegedly repeatedly verbally harassed a male deputy he was supervising. The deputy claimed the harassment escalated into incidents of groping, including Dery touching the deputy's anus in a locker room. Dery and the county both denied the allegations. The deputy later said he feared reporting the harassment due to Dery's connections in "high places." He eventually reported and filed a civil suit. The county settled for $900,000, with attorneys' fees of $381,764.67.
All told, $12.5 million in settlements and judgments, and an additional $4.5 million in attorneys' fees for the county, were paid out for Sheriff's Department sexual misconduct cases in the 13 years of data examined.
At least three of the payments, totaling $2.1 million in settlements and legal fees, were connected to allegations that minors were sexually assaulted by sheriff's deputies, according to KPCC/LAist's review of the cases.
Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said that a handful of cases with seven-figure legal bills have pushed up costs.
Nishida, who answered over email, raised a provision that applies to sworn officers as a cause of those high payouts.
"The Sheriff's Department," Nishida wrote, "unlike most other County departments, is liable when an employee engages in criminal behavior (such as sexual assault) when acting pursuant to 'color of authority.'"
'Color of authority' is a unique category in law, carved out because law enforcement officers have unique powers to compel citizens to follow their orders. The concept is set out in a 1991 case involving sexual assault by an LAPD officer. In her opinion in that case, California Supreme Court Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote that "the police act with the authority of the state. When police officers on duty misuse that formidable power to commit sexual assaults, the public employer must be held accountable for their actions."
The legal bills in those cases can be enormous.
"You're looking at potentially very high numbers," said defense attorney Traci Park. "So that could account in part ... for why the costs of the Sheriff's Department are higher."
However, the 'color of authority' framework does not apply to many sexual misconduct cases against the sheriff's identified by the county. KPCC/LAist reviewed the text of 23 complaints -- those made available electronically by the Los Angeles County Superior Court System, and the case involving Deputy Gonzalez mentioned above. The four cases that cited color of authority were outnumbered by the 19 that did not.
"The number of sexual assault cases under 'color of authority' is quite low. Those matters are so rare that they make the news," plaintiff's attorney Timothy Kearns said.
Asked in follow-up communications about the relatively few 'color of authority' cases, and the high overall costs at the Sheriff's Department, Nishida declined further comment.
CONTINUING 'TO PAY OUT AND PAY OUT'
Settlements involving police officers and sheriff's deputies grab headlines all the time. They usually stem from officer-involved shootings and allegations of excessive uses of force, incidents that happen in law enforcement -- and not other areas of local government.
Sexual misconduct, however, is not unique to law enforcement.
The high price of sexual misconduct at the Sheriff's Department echoes KPCC/LAist's finding earlier this year that the Los Angeles Police Department represented the majority of sexual harassment-linked settlement payouts by the City of L.A. in recent years.
"It's no surprise," said Kathy Spillar, who follows these issues through her involvement with the National Center for Women in Policing. She said the large payouts for L.A. County Sheriff's cases are a long-simmering concern.
"Until this problem of sexual harassment is dealt with, the department's going to continue to pay out and pay out," Spillar said. She believes that pervasive harassment has kept greater numbers of women from joining the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. County data shows that the department is nearly two-thirds male, counting both civilian and sworn members.
In fact, department leadership for years contested the consent decree requiring the agency to halt bias and boost the ranks of female deputies. Spanning four decades, the case and consent decree ultimately cost the county $72.4 million.
"This is not only an expensive problem financially, but it is also costing the citizens of Los Angeles County, the people of Los Angeles County, dearly in the lack of services that we expect from law enforcement," Spillar said.
Essentially, a more gender-balanced workforce would make the agency more effective in interacting with the community and responding to domestic violence calls, Spillar argued.
She also pointed to research showing female officers are less likely to use excessive force -- incidents that can cost their departments millions.
Nationwide, the numbers of women working in law enforcement have barely budged in recent years. A 1995 survey by the FBI found that 24.3 percent of law enforcement employees, sworn and civilian, were women.
That same survey in 2016 found the number had inched up to 26.5 percent.
HOW WE REPORTED THIS STORY
This story was reported using public records and documents. The county, which does not specifically track cases related to sexual misconduct, identified relevant cases in response to a KPCC/LAist records request. An initial response provided data on a few dozen Employment Practices cases. A subsequent, broader search turned up more than 130 cases by also searching General Liability, Law Enforcement, and Medical Malpractice case types. According to a county attorney who handled the request, "The cases in each of these categories which referenced the term 'sex' or any derivation thereof were examined and those cases involving sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, or any related behavior by County employees were identified".
This universe of 'sexual misconduct' cases is unlikely to match definitions of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct used by other jurisdictions, making direct comparisons difficult.
KPCC/LAist also requested attorneys' fees incurred by the county in its defense for each of the cases identified as sexual misconduct by the county. These costs are rarely reported in the media in stories about settlements and judgments, but help provide a fuller picture of the true costs of such cases.
The details of the cases referenced in this story are typically drawn from the case files. An editorial decision was made by KPCC/LAist to anonymize the names of those who alleged sexual assault, particularly men and women whose names had not previously been in the media in connection with the case. Not every misconduct case involved an allegation of sexual assault. Other records utilized in this reporting include criminal court records, Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission records, Sheriff's Department inmate records, and publicly available data on the county workforce.
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