Sheriff Alex Villanueva

Villanueva Accuses County of Failing to Defend Sheriff's Department in Lawsuits

Sheriff Alex Villanueva accused the county of failing to adequately defend the Sheriff's Department in lawsuits alleging excessive force or wrongful conduct cases by deputies.

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One day after his department was vilified by members of the county Board of Supervisors as they approved nearly $50 million to settle five lawsuits alleging excessive force or wrongful conduct by deputies, Sheriff Alex Villanueva shot back Wednesday, accusing the county of failing to adequately defend the agency in court.

He also accused the board of packing its Tuesday agenda with the five settlement cases one week before Villanueva is facing reelection. He called the vote and the supervisors' comments about the department "electioneering'' and "political theater.''

"Each and every case that we're involved with where the outcome is not good -- somebody either dies or is severely injured -- that, of course, each one is tragic in and of itself,'' the sheriff said during a downtown news
conference. "But to exploit the tragedy for political gain is equally upsetting.''

The board unanimously approved the legal settlements Tuesday, with two of the cases involving payouts topping $16 million. The board typically approves legal settlements without discussion, since the resolutions are generally discussed earlier in closed-session meetings with attorneys -- but several board members spoke out Tuesday, expressing dismay about the cost of the settlements.

"I think this is unacceptable,'' Supervisor Holly Mitchell said. "We need to understand ways to eliminate the high costs of litigation in the sheriff's department and ensure corrective action plans are developed by this department and all departments, and they result in meaningful change.''

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl -- whose home was recently searched by sheriff's deputies in connection with a political corruption probe -- also spoke out about the payouts, as did Supervisor Hilda Solis.

Without discussing the specifics of any of the cases settled Tuesday, Villanueva said Wednesday the county has often failed to mount an effective legal defense of lawsuits against the sheriff's department, opting instead for quick settlements that are rising in cost.

"We have seen time and time again cases that should be litigated, should be taken to trial, or at trial they should probably hire a law firm that knows how to run a trial, a federal trial, instead of rolling over and playing dead and not offering any credible defense,'' he said. "We have case after case now where either an inspector general or plaintiffs in depositions are admitting that nothing happened, in total contrast to their public statements and their lawsuit declarations.

"Go back 10-20 years and you had to fight the county tooth and nail over every lawsuit,'' he said. "They've decided now that they'd prefer to just have the sheriff's department pay these settlements out of the sheriff's department's budget.''

Among the other settlements approved Tuesday was a $16.5 million payment for a man who was left a paraplegic when he was shot in the back by a deputy while allegedly suffering a mental health breakdown at his family's home in Malibu.

The board also approved $16.2 million for relatives of Eric Briceno, who died after a violent struggle with sheriff's deputies in Maywood in 2020, also after family members reported he was having a mental health crisis. The county also agreed to pay $8 million to relatives of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, who was shot multiple times by a deputy in 2020 near Gardena.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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