The largest civil suit the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department ever lost stemmed from its handling of a disturbance at a Samoan party. Deputies were hurt, property was damaged, and a sizable number of disgruntled Samoans were arrested. Whatever the true culpability of the department, the bottom line is that it paid out millions of dollars more than it should have.
Understandably curious as to how such a large settlement could be made against the department—especially at a time when the department was financially strapped in the first place—the captain of the concerned station conducted a thorough and critical review of the incident.
I want to discuss some of that review's findings, not only because of the inherently interesting nature of the incident, but because it readily illustrates how mishandling various aspects of our profession can come back to bite us on our collective asses.
Now, according to deputies steeped in the incident's lore, the rowdy hosts of the party certainly shared their degree of blame for Thumpapolooza fest. But the Sheriff's Department recognized that it could have improved its chances in court if it had taken care of a lot of little details that, as it turned out, weren't so little.
One of the big problems the department had created for itself was allowing several crime reports generated around the incident to be deferred. Some of these reports were not completed for several days, and when they were submitted, were reviewed by different supervisors. This hampered the recognition of discrepancies between reports, or identifying what had been insufficiently documented because of expectations that the information would be found elsewhere (i.e., in another report).
In those instances where errors were eventually identified, yet more supplemental reports were generated to correct the errors of their predecessors, raising understandable suspicions on the part of the jurors who heard the case.
Lesson learned: Such incidents in the future would be handled in a manner similar to tactical problems; that is, that the watch commander and watch sergeant would conduct a debriefing on the same day as the incident to verify who did what. This would leave little ambiguity about who arrested who, what evidence needed to be collected, and ensure consistent versions of what occurred and what stood to be communicated throughout the course of a prosecution or civil trial.
It was also recommended that a team of station detectives be immediately dispatched to the scene to gather statements from witnesses and non-witnesses and to videotape and/or photograph the crime scene.
Presenting in Court
Another setback was how the case was presented in court. Most of the deputies involved in the case weren't prepared to testify in the trial, despite being given copies of their individual preliminary hearing transcripts and having a pre-trial meeting with the deputy district attorney. As a result, several glaring discrepancies arose in their testimonies, much to the delight of defense attorneys.
The most obvious discrepancy was that of the deputy who positively identified a suspect in the trial, but at the preliminary hearing did not even place a suspect in the area. When asked to account for the discrepancy, he said words to the effect of, "I don't know. I guess I just had a vision or something."
Courtroom demeanor came into play, as well. Some of the deputies testified in a manner that was openly hostile to defense attorneys. This had the effect of turning jury sympathies against them. Also, the testimony of the primary supervisor on scene left negative impressions, as well. Although articulate, his personality was described as "non-existent" and "like a rock."
Choice of courtroom attire turned out to be another factor. Jurors were less than impressed with the non-conformist air affected by the deputies. One of the primary witness deputies testified while wearing Levi's, a large belt buckle, and cowboy boots.
Further complicating the case were multiple differences of opinion and stated observations by the deputies as to the size of the party, the demeanor of the partygoers, and whether or not there was a need to disperse the crowd. One deputy testified that he would have used different tactics than those chosen by the on-scene sergeant, and added that he saw no reason for the department to declare an unlawful assembly.
What else went wrong? Tape-recorded transmissions from an aero unit monitoring the scene conflicted with testimony by those on the ground as to whether or not there was fighting in the streets and in the rear yard of the location. The helicopter pilot said that he saw no such activity at or around the house, whereas documented reports and other deputies' testimonies reflected otherwise.
The department's credibility was further called into question when it was unable to produce tapes of incoming phone calls regarding a loud party. The station recorder had become inoperative in the days preceding the party and a request for its repair had been denied because of the overtime that it would have required. This, coupled with the fact that jurors felt the calls to the station had been stiffed-in by department personnel, hamstrung the department's ability to justify its contention that it had legitimate justifications for its being at the location and for its subsequent actions.
As the captain noted in his report, it was a classic case of bureaucratic thinking: Don't spend $100 to save $1 million—the station recorder should have been repaired in the first place.
Both the jurors and the deputy district attorney agreed that the demeanor of the on-scene supervisor may have precluded the possibility of the incident ending in a peaceful manner. His giving a defendant a ten-second deadline to comply with orders—subsequently marked off by the sergeant counting off the seconds—didn't help. The sergeant's taking overly aggressive actions prior to having adequate field forces on scene prevented the possibility of resolving the situation through a show of force.
Jury members were also disturbed that there was no attempt by the handling deputy or the field supervisor to contact any complainants or informants before declaring the party an unlawful assembly.
The location was not treated as a crime scene and therefore any collection and photographing of evidence was poorly conducted. These became factors in questions that arose regarding the chain of evidence.
No notification was made to station detectives regarding the incident, and therefore 30 of the suspects were released prior to their being interviewed. They quickly retained attorneys, depriving detectives of any chance to speak with them and possibly impeach their testimonies.
Finally, some 26 months passed between the time of the incident and the trial, which allowed witnesses to forget specifics of the case.
Short-cutting logistics, precipitous actions, inconsistent reportage, shaky testimonies, poor evidence gathering, and lack of control. These problems and others ultimately dovetailed into an at least $24-million settlement (including attorneys' fees) against Los Angeles County—money that could have been used to hire and train personnel, and buy dependable call recording systems.
Think about these things when you're in the field, handling calls and contacts—especially at loud party calls.
Otherwise, the next time they decide to party, it might be on your dime.