Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office insurance premium increase tied to excessive force settlements
Liability insurance premiums for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office have skyrocketed in the wake of multimillion-dollar settlements stemming from excessive force claims against the department going back nearly a decade, records show.
The rate increase, representing a $2.7 million jump in the annual premiums next year ‒ a 46% rise ‒ outpaces hikes seen by Bay Area counties and other counties of similar size in the state. It has also put additional strain on the department’s budget, with Sheriff Mark Essick proposing deep cuts to staff and programs to fill a $14 million gap.
County risk management officials say the increase stems in part from three “significant” federal civil rights lawsuit settlements, totaling $6.6 million in the past year, that were paid to plaintiffs who sued over excessive force or wrongful death claims.
Essick has taken to social media to decry the mandated spending cuts, affecting all county departments, that led him to propose closing two satellite offices, reducing patrols and shutting down the department’s popular helicopter program, Henry 1. Any one of those moves could have been forestalled if not for the Sheriff’s Office’s insurance premium increases, which amount to nearly 20% of the deficit in the roughly $184 million budget.
“As a leader of a large organization and community member, of course (the rising rates) should be a concern,” Essick said in an interview last week, acknowledging publicly that the costs had compounded the department’s funding woes.
He did not mention the insurance costs in a pointed video address last month on the department’s Facebook page, where Essick called out the cuts he said he would be forced to make if required by the Board of Supervisors to slash more than $7 million in general fund spending. Most county departments are being asked to make cuts equivalent to about 10% of their general fund dollars.
Essick said he was simply trying to explain the possible fallout on public safety services and staffing, including up to 26 jobs ‒ 14 of them filled. But three of the five members of the Board of Supervisors, which oversees his budget, saw the message differently. Lynda Hopkins called it “political posturing” by Essick, who is in the second year of his first term, and senior incumbent Shirlee Zane said it came off as a declaration of “war” on the board.
Supervisors this week are set to return to their budget discussion, seeking to close a $45.7 million hole in the county’s $1.79 billion budget .
Essick pointed to a wider hardening of the insurance market that has spiked liability premiums beyond Sonoma County, but he also shared concerns about the string of costly civil rights settlements tied to the Sheriff’s Office that have helped fuel the increase.
“It’s something we’re always looking at ‒ the settlements that we pay, and what lessons we can learn from those,” he said.
The three most significant recent settlements stemmed from lawsuits dating as far back as November 2013, when the parents of Andy Lopez, the 13-year-old boy shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in 2013, filed a wrongful death suit. His parents settled with the county in December 2018 for $3 million, a record payout involving the Sheriff’s Office. The other two cases targeted alleged mistreatment of county inmates in a jailhouse “yard counseling” program that has since been eliminated, and a May 2014 SWAT raid that ended with a man taking his own life.
Essick is a 26-year veteran at the Sheriff’s Office, but all of the incidents predated his tenure as sheriff.
Local civil rights attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who represented clients in the yard counseling case, said the premium hikes represented the cost of department and county leaders not taking stronger action to curb cases of law enforcement mistreatment and brutality.
“If you have bad actors ‒ and this sheriff’s department is a bad actor ‒ you want to see affirmative, proactive efforts to get better,” he said. “We have the exact opposite thing happening with this department. They dig in their heels.”
Money now allocated for insurance increases could have been tapped for youth intervention programs, mobile support teams for mental health calls and other pressing needs, Schwaiger said.
“Instead, that money is not available because of the recklessness of this department,” Schwaiger said. “And then they have the audacity to say we need more, or that they’re the only department that shouldn’t face budget cuts? If they wanted to have more money, maybe they should have killed fewer people.”
Essick said he wouldn’t respond to Schwaiger’s more forceful accusations, but he was ready with a list of changes the department has undertaken through the years.