HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Los Angeles:

Civil Lawsuits
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The Police Commission is notified when civil lawsuits are filed against LAPD officers, and the inspector general is tasked with tracking the suits. Between 1991 and 1995, the city paid approximately $79.2 million in civil lawsuit judgments and awards and pre-trial settlements against police officers (not including traffic accidents).145

1991: approx. $14.6 million

1992: $19.7 million

1993: $10.6 million

1994: $8.7 million

1995: $13.5 million

1996: $12.1 million

In February 1997, the city agreed to pay gay rights demonstrators $87,000 in a settlement for police misconduct in a 1991 incident, while admitting no wrongdoing; the settlement also required LAPD officers to identify themselves to anyone seeking their names or badge numbers.146 The settlement stemmed from an incident during which gay rights protesters were allegedly shoved and beaten by officers.147

In October 1992, additional staff were brought into the City Attorney's office as part of a new unit to handle lawsuits against the police, and a legal counsel'soffice was created within the police department to coordinate responses to the lawsuits but not to investigate the underlying claims.148 Prior to 1992, the city was reportedly overwhelmed with the number of lawsuits and settled quickly for fear of losing larger amounts if cases went to trial.

Until 1998, the IAG would receive a copy of civil lawsuits that are filed and, after deciding whether there is possible misconduct, IAG or the division where the subject officer was stationed would do a preliminary investigation.149 Only if it was determined that misconduct may have been involved, and after the preliminary investigation was reviewed, a formal personnel complaint investigation, or 1.81, was opened.150 In early 1998, this pre-screening was eliminated; now, every claim that is filed against LAPD initiates an internal investigation.151 Yet according to the IAG Commander, if there is a civil jury verdict against the officer, no information about it will be entered into the officer's records unless the police department also finds the officer administratively guilty of the offense that generated the civil lawsuit.152 He also said the department's tracking system would only list that there was a claim filed against the officer, but not the outcome.153

The OIG's November 1997 report reviewed 561 civil claims for damages involving department employees forwarded from the City Attorney's office to the department in 1995.154 The department had not sustained a single allegation of misconduct against a sworn employee, of the 561 claims reviewed. While the CityAttorney's office does notify the department when a claim is filed in state court, the OIG found that there has been no procedure in place for the City Attorney to notify the department of federal lawsuits.

In a previous survey of civil lawsuits alleging excessive or improper force, the Christopher Commission examined eighty-three successful lawsuits involving a payment by the city of at least $15,000 each and found: "...[A] majority of the cases appeared to involve clear and often egregious misconduct resulting in serious injury or death to victims, although some of the cases involved accidental or negligent conduct. The LAPD's investigation of these 83 cases was flawed in many respects, and discipline against the officers involved was frequently light or nonexistent. Moreover, the LAPD does not have adequate procedures in place to review or learn from the results of this litigation."155 IAD had investigated twenty-three of the eighty-three incidents, and fifty-two were investigated by the Robbery/Homicide unit because they involved shootings, and others were investigated by the relevant divisions; fourteen were not investigated at all.156 Only 21 percent of the officers involved in the eighty-three incidents were disciplined, only three officers (or 6 percent) were terminated. Forty-two percent of the officers named in lawsuits had been promoted as of 1991, and 84 percent received positive overall ratings in performance evaluations.157

145 Office of the City Attorney, data provided November 22, 1996 and updated September 4, 1997. No breakdown was provided regarding the precise types of complaints in each lawsuit. The city is self-insured.

146 Bettina Boxall, "City settles policy brutality suit over incident at a gay rights protest," Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1997.

147 Ibid.

148 Telephone interview with civil liability office of the Legal Affairs Office of the LAPD, August 27, 1997.

149 Telephone interview with Lt. Peter Trilling, IAD, August 27, 1997.

150 Ibid.

151 Telephone interview, Inspector General Mader, April 20, 1998. The IG's November 1997 report blamed the City Attorney's office for not providing information to the police department regarding lawsuits filed against police personnel. IAG's Commander told Human Rights Watch that lawsuits, which may be filed after a claim is denied by the city, rather than initial claims, now trigger an investigation. Telephone interview, IAG Commander McMurray, May 8, 1998.

152 Telephone interview, IAG Commander James McMurray, May 8, 1998.

153 Ibid.

154 Office of the Inspector General, "Status update: management of LAPD high-risk officers," November 1997, pp. 6-7.

155 Christopher Commission report, p. 55.

156 Ibid., p. 57. The totals overlap because some investigations were conducted by more than one entity.

157 Ibid.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch