Over the years, judges and juries have heaped scorn on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for its brutality, violations of civil rights and other misdeeds, penalizing the department financially for its misbehavior.
But now, punishment is getting personal. Last week, in an unusual, although not unheard of, decision, jurors in a federal civil rights lawsuit found Sheriff Lee Baca had personal responsibility for the jailhouse beating of a prisoner and assessed his penalty at $100,000.
It’s not clear if the county can, or will, pick up the tab, but the department has made it known the decision will be appealed.
Attorneys for Tyler Willis filed the lawsuit in 2010, one year after Willis was tasered, beaten with flashlights and kicked at the Men’s Central Jail, causing a leg broken in two places, taser burns, lots of body bruises, a broken nose and multiple facial wounds. The department argued he had it coming for being combative and aggressive.
The jury took three days, after a weeklong trial, to determine that he didn’t have it coming and was the victim of behavior that was “malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard of [Willis'] rights.” Responsibility for that behavior, the jurors said, should be shared by Deputies Anthony Vasquez, Mark Farino and Pedro Guerrero, Captain Daniel Cruz and Sheriff Baca.
The jury awarded a total of $125,000 in compensatory damages and, to avoid a penalty phase, the defendants agreed to pay $165,000 in punitive damages. Baca got the lion’s share of the financial blame, while the others split $65,000. Willis’ attorneys had argued that Baca deserved the blame personally for approving a policy that allowed deputies to use heavy flashlights to control prisoners and failing to heed warnings and recommendations from myriad reports on his department documenting its abysmal behavior.
Although it is rare for the head of a law enforcement department to bear the blame financially in a lawsuit, it is not unheard of. A jury in 1992 held Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief Darryl Gates partially liable for $44,000 in punitive damages—to survivors of three dead men—along with the Special Investigation Service (SIS) officers who killed them during a McDonald’s restaurant robbery.
The plaintiffs argued that the officers, who had the robbers under surveillance, deliberately set up a situation where deadly force would appear justified. The L.A. City Council picked up Gates’ tab.
Much of the Willis case relied on information gleaned from a 2012 report from the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which said, “Both the responsibility for, and the solutions to, the problem of excessive force in the County jails lies with the Department’s leadership.” The report (pdf) identified 258 instances of significant use of force by jailers in 2009, the year Willis’ was beaten. That compared to 160 the year before.