Then when you add in the following, you will see that lawsuit costs are a huge problem for the county.
Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff is under pressure to reduce liability claims resulting from the actions of his deputies. (File photo by Mark Dustin, Contributing Photographer)
Riverside County officials are urging the Sheriff’s Department to do more to limit lawsuits that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
The lawsuits have contributed greatly to an almost 100 percent increase in liability claims payouts and a more than doubling of liability insurance premiums in the past five years.
Sheriff Stan Sniff has said that lawsuits are to be expected in his profession, in which deputies sometimes use force to arrest suspects and pursue vehicles in high-traffic areas. But Chief Deputy Kevin Vest said in an interview Thursday, May 11, that evolving tactics, uniform-mounted cameras and new software that better tracks incidents could reduce the frequency and cost of litigation.
The county’s projected 2016-17 costs — $32 million on claims and $7.6 million on insurance in “general and auto liability” — come at a time when the county’s expenditures exceed its income.
“Without question, we need to do more to control that cost,” Paul McDonnell, the county’s finance director, told the Board of Supervisors at a budget overview on May 9.
While a number of county departments contribute to the lawsuit payouts, the Sheriff’s Department is responsible for “well over half,” Assistant CEO/Human Resources Director Mike Stock said during a budget presentation to the supervisors in September.
“I think we need to say we’re looking at sheriff for changing practices and training,” County Supervisor John Tavaglione said at that meeting. “Public safety needs to be addressed in a more aggressive manner in terms of training, in my opinion. Better tactics, time’s on their side, most of the time, and I think we could save a lot of money there.”
The county is grappling with creating a budget for next year while trying to pay for court-ordered improvements in inmate health care that could cost $40 million annually, high labor and pension costs and an expansion of the Indio jail.
The Sheriff’s Department has the most liability costs to control. Deputies’ use of force, vehicle collisions or other incidents have produced 31 of the 51 most recent payouts of at least $1 million, Stock said.
Those payouts often go well beyond $1 million. Four times since 2014, jury awards or settlements have resulted in the county and its insurer paying at least $5 million in cases related to the Sheriff’s Department.
The county is self-insured for general and auto liability, workers’ compensation, medical malpractice, short-term disability, dental, unemployment and health insurance.
The county basically has a $3.5 million deductible on each claim. It must pay an additional $2 million after paying the first claim before insurance will kick in on subsequent claims, Stock said.
Other departments that have settled million-dollar general-liability claims include Riverside University Health System Medical Center, the Department of Public Social Services, the District Attorney’s Office and the Transportation & Land Management Agency.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to eliminate them,” said Vest, the sheriff’s chief deputy, “but giving the county the means to dispose of them quicker and more efficiently is a huge goal.”
When the Sheriff’s Department was awarded a $577,900 grant for body-worn cameras in October 2016, part of that money was earmarked for software that will allow sheriff’s supervisors to more quickly collect information on uses of force by, and complaints against, deputies.
“It can be much more real time and much more accurate,” Vest said.
McDonnell said at the May 9 supervisors meeting, “The sheriff’s office is implementing a new tracking system which will identify officers who may be in need of some additional training in order to keep them on the straight and narrow.”
Vest, in the interview, put it differently.
By tracking trends in deputies’ actions, “It is something we are going to use to modify our existing training or create new classes,” he said.
Asked how the Sheriff’s Department could limit liability lawsuits, Vest focused on the effect of the video cameras’ role in more quickly resolving or disproving claims against the department, or disposing of them for lesser dollar amounts. Every patrol deputy is supposed to be outfitted with a camera by 2018.
Vest added that the department is creating new courses in tactical operations and trains deputies to work with mentally ill people, calm tense situations and drive more safely during pursuits.
Add this to the list of issues with Stan Sniff’s department.