Claims against sheriff skyrocket - East Valley Tribune: News

Claims against sheriff skyrocket

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Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2003 7:27 am | Updated: 1:35 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has saved taxpayers thousands of dollars by not serving such things as coffee and mayonnaise to inmates in his jails.

But the lawsuits filed against his office have cost Maricopa County more than $13.7 million, according to county claims and court records reviewed by the Tribune.

More than one-third of that payout comes from 10 cases, half of which involve similar allegations of excessive force causing injuries and death.

From about May 1993, when the first claims were filed against the Arpaio administration to November 2002, more than 6,700 claims have been filed against the sheriff’s office for civil rights violations, automobile crashes and other liability allegations. About half of the claims resulted in payouts by the county that totaled nearly $8.7 million. Defending the cases cost an additional $5.1 million.

Arpaio makes no apologies for the cases that have been filed against his office, saying fighting them is simply a cost of fighting crime in a litigious society.

"We don’t like any lawsuits, but . . . you just can’t stay away from them. It’s almost impossible," Arpaio said. As for the many settlements paid by the county, Arpaio said he has no say in the payouts, and that he’d much rather go to trial.

"They sue me for everything around here, and I don’t even have any input in it," he said.

Many cases involve disputes that are common in law enforcement: Fights between inmates, allegations of false arrest and traffic crashes involving sheriff’s office vehicles, which make up about half of the claims.

Counties with populations and sheriff’s forces similar in size to Maricopa County’s paid out varying amounts from 1993 to 2002. For example, San Diego County in California, smaller in population but located in one of the most litigious states in the nation, paid more than $21 million. Harris County in Texas, which exceeds Maricopa County’s population by about 400,000 people, paid roughly $5.2 million.

A review of the 10 most expensive cases involving Arpaio’s office revealed a problem that sinks deeper than the total cost of litigation to taxpayers.

The county has paid out millions of dollars for similar problems involving excessive force. Injuries and one death from excessive force were cited in half of the 10 cases, which cost $5.8 million over the 10-year period.

Those costs could keep rising because of a continuing flow of lawsuits, some of them involving the same costly problems, according to court records.

"The reason that there are so many claims is because of the culture Arpaio has created within the sheriff’s office. That culture is a culture of cruelty to detainees," said Michael Manning, an attorney in two similar cases against Arpaio’s department. "If you have a culture of cruelty, that will result in deaths and injuries, and that will result in lawsuits."

RESTRAINT CHAIR

Two of the county’s most expensive cases involved the use of a restraint chair. On June 1, 1996, 33-year-old Scott Norberg was arrested for allegedly punching a Mesa policeman, then brought to the county’s Madison Street Jail, where he was handcuffed, hit at least 21 times with a stun gun and placed in a restraint chair in such a way that his airway was cut off, according to court records.

A medical examiner’s report listed Norberg’s cause of death as positional asphyxia, meaning the position he was placed in did not allow him to breathe.

Arpaio said his staff did nothing wrong and that he wanted to go to trial. Instead, the county settled for $8.25 million, one of the largest settlements ever for the sheriff’s office, and possibly the entire county, said Peter Crowley, a county risk manager.

Officers’ conduct during the Norberg incident was reviewed internally about a dozen times, said Jack MacIntyre, the sheriff’s director of intergovernmental relations. "The officers followed policy," MacIntyre said.

Today, the office continues to defend use of the restraint chair.

"That restraint chair is used thousands of times a year. Thousands," MacIntyre said. "If somebody could come up with a better, softer system than a plastic restraint chair, we’d be happy to look at it."

On March 17, 1996 — nearly three months before Norberg’s death — Richard Post, a paraplegic, suffered serious injuries after he was strapped in a restraint chair, according to his lawsuit.

Arrested for disturbing the peace, Post was booked and left in his jail cell for an hour without the help he requested to empty his bladder. To get the attention of guards, Post clogged his toilet with toilet paper until it overflowed. Staff responded by moving him from his wheelchair to a restraint chair, where an employee "shackled his useless legs with chains," threatened him with a stun gun and delayed giving him the gel cushion he needed, the lawsuit claimed.

The restraint chair left Post with severe ulcers around his anus, difficulties with bladder and bowel control and significant loss of upper-body mobility from compression of his spine, which has prevented him from driving his specially equipped van, court records state.

The county settled the case for $772,770 and spent an additional $245,074 to defend the case, bringing total county expenses to more than $1 million. The Post case follows Norberg’s as the secondlargest payout during Arpaio’s tenure, according to county records.

Arpaio said the Norberg case, which sparked a federal criminal investigation that was closed for lack of evidence, has been overblown. Making an issue of the chair when there was only one "unfortunate incident" is unfair, he said.

But on Aug. 6, 2001, paramedics were called when it appeared that 33-year-old Charles Agster III of Scottsdale, who was arrested on suspicion of trespassing, stopped breathing in a restraint chair. His family removed him from life support three days later.

In January, the Agster family filed a lawsuit against the county and Arpaio.

Court records state that a detention officer forced Agster’s head backward over the back of the restraint chair, then five jail guards pushed him forward at the waist to remove his handcuffs, cutting off his air supply, the lawsuit claims. The medical examiner concluded that Agster died of "positional asphyxia due to restraint" and "acute drug intoxication," but ruled the death an accident.

Arpaio said he was limited in what he could say about the Agster case because it is being litigated, but he pointed out that Agster didn’t die in the chair. "I’d love to go to court on this case. Let the facts come out, how the guy got to us, what condition he was in, what really happened," he said. "Hey, I’m ready to go."

Agster’s father, Chuck, said use of the restraint chair, which has caused deaths nationwide, should be banned.

Amnesty International lists at least 11 deaths linked to restraint chairs in the last several years, with Agster’s case being the most recent one.

"It hurt us the way he was treated," said Chuck Agster. "Why should anyone be treated that way in a restraint chair? "

TOUGH ACTION

Lawyers who have sued Arpaio say the image he conveys as the toughest sheriff in America trickles down to his employees, encouraging cruel treatment of detainees, who then file lawsuits.

"He thinks that these people (in jail) are animals and never even acknowledges they’re innocent before found guilty," said attorney Larry Debus. "That attitude is adopted by the people who work for him."

Debus represented Robert Dillon, a former detainee who received a $135,000 settlement from the county for his civil complaint that employees of the sheriff’s office and Phoenix police shot him in the chest and testicles with a stun gun, strapped him in a restraint chair and sprayed him in the face with chemical foam. The disorderly conduct allegations against him were later dropped.

Arpaio, who has been elected sheriff three times, said his tough policies may sometimes make him the target of litigation, but they save taxpayers a lot of money.

To overcome scarce jail space, he erected Tent City, a cheaper option than building jails. He took coffee, mayonnaise and salt away from inmates, had them mail postcards instead of letters and reduced meals from three times to twice a day. Food costs have been cut further by sending inmates to glean food from farm fields and by buying nearly expired food at deep discounts, said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Lisa Allen MacPherson.

Arpaio said the cuts saved taxpayers about $12 million in 2002 in meal costs -- nearly as much as the county paid out in claims in the last decade.

Arpaio was sued for banning pornography in his jails, but won the case.

"Nobody talks about the sheriff (saving) $70 million (to build a jail), but they really will talk about it if an inmate hits another inmate . . . and I’m the guy that gets sued," Arpaio said.

Jeremy Flanders, who was serving a yearlong sentence for burglary, sued the county Oct. 29, 1997, after he was hit by a tent stake from his upper bunk, according to court records.

Flanders argued that his safety was jeopardized by chronic understaffing and the inherent risks of detaining a range of offenders, from drunken drivers to murderers, together in open tent facilities. He went to trial and a jury awarded him $797,887, according to court records. The county also paid $162,157 in defense costs, making the case the county’s fourth mostcostly claim against Arpaio’s office.

Arpaio said his jails are understaffed, employees are underpaid and turnover is a problem. Employees work in crowded jails, built to house 5,600 but packed with 8,200 inmates. But Arpaio said his jails are run safely and he is confident in his policies.

"Do you think I’m going to take down those tents and build a $70 million jail just because one inmate assaults another guy and we were sued on that? I’m not going to do that," he said.

One of those policies will be tested in litigation filed Dec. 17, 2002, by Jerome Talbow, a detainee who passed out in his cell from diabetic insulin shock, which damaged his eyesight, according to his complaint. Joel Robbins, his attorney, said his insulin shock was caused by Arpaio’s policy of providing only two meals a day.

CONTINUED LIABILITY

There are other cases pending that parallel the county’s costliest lawsuits involving the sheriff’s office. Among them: The case of Louella Stevens, filed Dec. 31, 2002, which alleges that Stevens died in her cell from a severe infection caused by a perforated gastric ulcer. Instead of getting her medical help immediately, a detention officer had her moved in a wheelchair to a single-occupancy cell because her screaming was disturbing other people, according to the lawsuit.

The county’s sixth most expensive case paid Sharon Freeman $390,000 for injuries from a fall July 20, 1999, caused by a seizure. Court records stat e that she requested her seizure medications, but never received them.

MacIntyre, the sheriff ’s intergovernmental relations director, said lawsuits about medical complaints in jail typically name Arpaio, but the responsible party is often correctional health services. "We don’t have medical experts and we don’t want detention officers making medical decisions," he said.

Attorney Dick Treon said he is preparing to file a notice of claim with the county for David Rodriguez, who was seriously injured and his wife killed when a vehicle that two sheriff’s cars were chasing crashed into couple’s vehicle at the intersection of Rural and Baseline roads on Jan. 30 in Tempe. A case ranked No. 7 fo r cos ting the county $326,130 involved Jennifer Rice, who was killed Sept. 8, 1996, during a high-speed pursuit. The pursuit was initiated by sheriff’s deputies, who were chasing a car driven by a 14-year-old boy, according to court records.

MacIntyre said deciding whether to initiate a highspeed pursuit can present tragic outcomes either way.

Traffic crashes are a risk, but so is the possibility that a fleeing driver who is armed, which was reported in the Rice incident, will get away and harm someone, he said.

"I think the office probably will look and evaluate it, but will they stop pursuing the bad guys? I don’t think so," MacIntyre said.

The pending cases signal the potential for more liability by the county, which has been covered by insurance that kicks in once a county’s payout exceeds $1 million.

That threshold for coverage has been shrinking, however, as the insurance market has tightened up, said Crowley, the county’s risk manager.

Last year, to keep premiums down, the county increased its self-insured retention, or deductible, to $2 million. Last month, the county kicked its deductible up to $5 million, leaving the county on the hook for all payouts of less than $5 million.

That exposure is a concern, since it’s only a matter of time before the county is faced with a potentially expensive case, said Supervisor Chairman Fulton Brock, R-District 1 of Chandler.

"I’m always concerned anytime we have incidences, especially if someone has expired," said Brock, referring to the Agster case. "It’s just a catastrophe when someone dies in incarceration."

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