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Contract cities voice concerns about new sheriff

LOS ANGELES — As County Sheriff Alex Villanueva faces a crisis over his decision to hire back troubled deputies and his challenging of some policing reforms, he is getting pushback from some leaders in the cities his department patrols under contract.

Those cities collectively paid $310 million to the Sheriff’s Department this past year and have long been seen as a key source of political power, the Los Angeles Times reported May 13.

But now, they are worried their liability costs could swell under Villanueva, who has criticized previous jail violence reforms and has reinstated deputies who were fired for unreasonable force, dishonesty and domestic violence. The concerns add to the political pressure on the new sheriff, whose moves have been questioned in the months since his underdog campaign defeated incumbent Jim McDonnell last fall.

Villanueva insisted last month that the contract cities “couldn’t care less” about the turmoil between him and the county Board of Supervisors, which has sued over his decision to reinstate a troubled deputy. But in a letter in response, the cities’ membership organization said the sheriff’s comment about the contract cities was “inaccurate and highly troubling,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The letter also cited The Times’ reporting about Villanueva’s feud with the Board of Supervisors.

“There is significant risk associated with reinstating deputies who have a history of excessive force or other misconduct and were previously dismissed in accordance with long-established department policy, particularly if those deputies are ever assigned to a contract city,” said the letter, signed by the leaders of the California Contract Cities Association.

Marcel Rodarte, the association’s executive director, said the letter was spurred by hearing complaints from a significant number of member cities.

He declined to name them, saying they preferred to advocate through the organization, The Times reported.

Villanueva, speaking at a Times editorial board meeting May 7, said he’s received positive feedback at recent community meetings in Lancaster, Palmdale, Carson and Norwalk. He said leaders of some of those cities are “tickled to death” by the department’s performance. Indeed, some city leaders interviewed by The Times backed Villanueva’s leadership.

Of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County, 42 contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for police services, The Times reported. Some cities spend as much as a third of their budgets on it. The payments represent about 10% of the department’s $3-billion annual budget.

The cities also pay for litigation stemming from shootings, car crashes and misconduct involving deputies at their stations — costs that have been rising in recent years and are poised to increase again in July.

“Mayors do care about increases to their liability,” said Curtis Morris, the longtime mayor of San Dimas, a city of 34,000 that has a $6.7-million annual contract with the Sheriff’s Department. Of that amount, about $600,000 automatically goes to the Los Angeles County Contract Cities Liability Trust Fund, which pools money from the contract cities to cover payouts tied to lawsuits as well as excess insurance.

Morris said if a deputy fired for using excessive force were reinstated, and then committed excessive force a second time, the person who suffered the deputy’s force could receive a larger settlement in a lawsuit by pointing out the deputy’s previous misconduct.

In 2010, the cities paid a 4% surcharge — on top of the cost of their contracts — to the Contract Cities Liability Trust Fund. The liability surcharge for all the contract cities is now 10.5%, and it will increase to 11% in July because of the need to replenish the fund, which has paid out large jury verdicts and settlements from claims over the past several years.

In the fiscal year ending in 2014, the contract cities collectively paid $11.1 million in litigation stemming primarily from allegations of deputy misconduct, according to county data. That number spiked to $18.8 million in 2016 and dipped to $15.4 million last year.

Insurers also have been charging higher premiums for the same or smaller amounts of coverage than in years past, said Jonathan Shull, chief executive of the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, which helps manage some aspects of the trust fund, including buying the insurance.

John Heilman, a West Hollywood City Council member, praised his neighborhood deputies but said he’s troubled by the sheriff’s recent reinstatements of troubled deputies. With an $18-million contract, West Hollywood is among the highest-paying customers of the Sheriff’s Department because of its high volume of tourists and shoppers, which requires more patrols.

“When the sheriff is rehiring people who have problems in their past, that’s not good for the department. It’s not good for the community either,” Heilman said. “As city officials, where we contract with the sheriff, we all share the liability. It is a concern for me if people are being brought back on who have engaged in conduct that is not consistent with high ethical standards.”

Heilman, who has served on the city council for three decades, acknowledged that the nature of police work means some liability is to be expected. In 2016, the city paid $7.5 million after deputies in West Hollywood mistakenly shot two hostages who were fleeing from a man who’d stabbed one of them at an apartment complex.

Other mayors — including Albert Robles of Carson, Marsha McLean of Santa Clarita and Brent Tercero of Pico Rivera — said they had strong relationships with the Sheriff’s Department and did not share concerns about Villanueva’s moves. Those cities are some of the largest served by deputies.

“Villanueva has only been sheriff less than six months and already he has met with me, the entire city council and our residents, and that is indicative of his responsiveness to our city, and we appreciate that,” said Robles, noting that the sheriff recently spoke at a town hall in Carson.

Staff and Wire Reports