Big payments last year helped drive a dramatic increase in the cost of resolving legal claims against the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department during the last five years, reports the Los Angeles Times. In one case, Los Angeles County paid more than $6 million to a woman who had been raped by a sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop. In another, it took more than $7 million to resolve multiple lawsuits after deputies mistakenly shot two hostages, killing one and seriously wounding the other. The county’s annual payouts have jumped from $5.6 million to nearly $51 million. The judgments and settlements often involved allegations of serious misconduct against law enforcement officers, including sexual assault, excessive force, shooting unarmed suspects and wrongful imprisonment.
Many of the payouts stemmed from incidents that stretched back several years and were settled after working their way though the legal system, so they may not reflect current deputy conduct. Attorneys, government officials and law enforcement experts say the increase nevertheless reflects growing distrust of law enforcement and the intense public scrutiny of how officers use deadly force. Jurors are now less likely to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt and more likely to award larger sums to plaintiffs, emboldening attorneys to seek larger settlements during negotiations. “The social climate of today has had an important impact on trials and outcomes,” said Steven Estabrook, litigation cost manager for the Los Angeles County counsel’s office. “Higher awards and higher costs are getting more common.”