SoCal Police's Blood Money

When the DA declines to prosecute bad cops, the only justice families can get is financial

Steering's dismal view extends to juries, as well. "White people are pretty stupid," he says. "They live in a fantasy world. They don't know there's a substantial minority of cops who get off on beating people. 'Resisting arrest' or 'delaying an officer'—people go for this stupid crap."

Given all this, Steering questions prospective clients carefully before taking their case. First question: Have you had a psychiatric hospitalization? Steering says, "If you do, [the prosecution will] rip the crap out of you."

Second: Do you have a job? "Juries don't like people who don't have jobs," he says.

Emily Dole, before the beating
Emily Dole, before the beating
Emily Dole, after the beating
Emily Dole, after the beating

Third: What kind of convictions do you have? "If you were convicted of a heinous felony, they'll rip you apart in trial," he says. "If you're a child molester, nobody's going to give you any money."

Finally: Do you have any witnesses? "Sometimes it takes a lot of investigation to find out what happened," he notes.

Even with the deck stacked against his clients, Steering has seen change happen. "Jail beatings are way down in Orange County," he says. "Sheriff [Sandra] Hutchens has really made a difference. One of my clients told me that now they make you stand up for hours and hours in the jail. A deputy told him, 'The sheriff says we can't beat you anymore.'"

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Despite such encouraging developments, achieving real change when it comes to police misconduct can be difficult for many reasons. Police officials tend to see such lawsuits as an assault on their authority, rather than a plea for accountability. Within a department, even if officers feel one of them overstepped his bounds or delivered substandard performance, "snitching" is as unpopular as it is in gang circles. This, combined with a belief that the actions were justified by circumstances and that civilians don't understand the pressures of policing, can lead to an "us against them" mentality.

Another issue is the rarity of criminal prosecutions brought against law-enforcement personnel because of "justified shootings." Steering notes that in 2010, the LAPD shot 15 people who "reached for their waistband." None had a gun. None of the officers was prosecuted. Steering represented the family of Ashley MacDonald, a suicidal 18-year-old girl who was fatally shot by Huntington Beach police in 2006 after she brandished a small knife in a public park. Although the cops put 15 bullets into the teenager, none was charged with a crime. It was found the officers' actions didn't violate department policy.

But when a jury awards a plaintiff or a settlement is reached with a city, where does the money come from? The taxpayers? Like corporations, cities have insurance policies. Smaller cities often join insurance risk pools to spread the risk and get better rates. Depending on the city, policy, association, etc., the deductible for a liability could be between $50,000 and $1 million. The deductible is typically paid out of city coffers; the balance would come from insurance.

One such pool that includes Stanton provides its 31 member cities $50 million in limits on an occurrence basis, with no aggregate. That means each member city is covered up to that amount per incident. As a PERMA insurance company spokesperson noted, "In the unlikely event a judgment was made in excess of the $50 million, then the member would be responsible for the amount over $50 million." Even the largest settlements, such as the $24 million won by the Dole family, have not yet risen to such levels.

"No aggregate" means a city with multiple occurrences throughout the policy year would have a $50 million limit available for each occurrence. So even if a city had multiple brutality judgments against it, about all that would happen is the city's deposit premium, paid to fund the coverage, would increase. The spokesperson noted that his association has never expelled a member for above-average liability losses and that he has never heard of an insurance pool that has.

Ron Thomas has little patience for this. "I get hate email because people think I'm going to bankrupt the city," he says. "The city is not going to go broke. The system is designed so that the city doesn't get penalized. So they get complacent and don't care. We're actually suing the mayor, police chief and two councilmen individually. That might wake them up a bit."

Even though bad cops are rarely prosecuted or fired, many families find civil litigation offers some form of justice and even forgiveness. In his case, Steering "subpoenaed every one of the police officers," Merritt Sharp Sr. says. "They squirmed in court every day for about two weeks. 'Do you know who pointed a gun at Mr. Sharp?' 'No.' 'Do you know who handcuffed Mr. Sharp?' 'No.' The jury didn't believe the cops."

But all too often, what the family really wants—an acknowledgment and an apology—is not forthcoming. "My clients Zerby and Dole never got an apology," Mardirossian says. "After the settlement, the legal responsibility of the police is over. It's all about ego."

To families seeking someone to be held accountable for the death of a loved one, even small judgments against individual cops become very important. In the case of Doug Zerby, in addition to the $6.5 million judgment that will be paid by the city, the two policemen were ordered to pay $5,000 each to the family.

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