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The Learning Curve

Jerone Woods had no intention of becoming a landmark in the affairs of L.A. County government when he surrendered to Sheriff’s deputies in September 1999 to serve a 45-day sentence for driving under the influence.

The 55-year-old Woods informed his jailers that he suffered from hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol, and handed over the five prescription drugs he took daily. A jail doctor ordered that the pills be replaced by a single medication, and Woods was assigned to a general-population module holding 120 inmates. Less than three days later, Woods suffered a heart attack, fell from his bunk bed and died.

Woods was one of more than 100 inmates to die in county custody in the past three years. And as in many similar cases, Woods’ widow sued. County lawyers agreed to settle for $850,000.

What set Woods apart was a demand by county supervisors — in particular, Eastside Supervisor Gloria Molina — that the Sheriff’s Department should explain what went wrong and make sure it didn’t happen again. The legal settlement included a “corrective action plan” that called for discipline of individual deputies and new policies to ensure closer monitoring of inmate medical care.

Such plans have been included in past legal cases, but the Woods plan was the first to win Supervisor Molina’s endorsement. Details of the plan were kept secret to protect the deputies’ privacy, but the close scrutiny of legal claims signals a new level of accountability for the Sheriff’s Department.

Molina followed up this spring, when supervisors approved a second legal award, this one involving protesters arrested during the Democratic National Convention three years ago. At Molina’s motion, the action plan directed Merrick Bobb, an independent attorney on retainer to the board, to monitor the Sheriff’s Department to enforce a new inmate-tracking system for the county’s massive jail.

Aides with Molina’s office say the steps are critical to oversight of the Sheriff’s Department and represent a critical step in the county’s effort to reverse the mushrooming growth of awards paid out in civil lawsuits, which totaled more than $200 million last year.

“It’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Molina spokesperson Miguel Santana said of the improved action plans. “It’s been a frustrating process,” Santana said. “We want to make sure we’re not paying out these dollars without learning from the experience.”

 

The $2.75 million settlement of a class-action suit filed by bike-riding protesters at the 2000 convention shows just how steep the learning curve can be.

The suit was brought by 63 protesters arrested by the LAPD for traffic violations and released after a court hearing the following day. Key to the county’s liability were strip searches of 23 women, conducted upon their arrival at the county jail, and again after a judge ordered their ‰ release. The searches were illegal and violated explicit department policy. In fact, the county was sued in 1997, resulting in court rulings that strip searches in simple misdemeanor cases were unconstitutional.

Despite that precedent, the county was sued last year by Brandi Beaudoin, a mother of two who was six months pregnant when she was arrested December 5, 2000, in Lomita for outstanding traffic warrants. Ignoring the pleas of her husband, who was attempting to post bail for Beaudoin’s release, deputies had Beaudoin transferred to the Twin Towers jail downtown, where she was strip-searched upon her arrival.

Beaudoin contended that the search led to premature labor, and county lawyers recommended a settlement of $150,000. When the case came before county supervisors last July, Supervisor Molina demanded an explanation from the Sheriff’s Department. “My concern is that right now, today, we are taking pregnant women at L.A. County Jail and strip-searching them. Somehow there is a problem that this sheriff doesn’t seem to understand what our own county policies are, let alone the law.”

During the hearing, Sheriff’s officials said they had been unable to determine which supervisor had authorized the strip search and which deputy had conducted it. When the same problems arose in the DNC case, said Molina aide Gerry Hertzberg, the vague responses incensed the supervisor. “Gloria just went nuts.”

Ellen Ellison, the attorney who brought Beaudoin’s claim against the county, said the Sheriff’s Department was evasive in its dealings with her as well. Ellison said the department declined to name the individual deputies who had contact with Beaudoin, and when a judge ordered the names turned over, the county immediately offered to settle the case. Ellison said the department may write new policies, but said the real problem lay in the staff at the jail. “Those female deputies are just playing with people down there. It’s really outrageous.”

Molina took the same tack at the board hearing in July. “Let’s get the bad cops out of there,” she told her fellow supervisors. “Let’s get the people who don’t understand the law better trained. Let’s get officers and supervisors in there who are going to read these code sections and understand them, and more importantly, let’s get some risk management in there so that we don’t have to see this number of claims every month.”

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