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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.

The Sheriff’s Office and county have taken steps to address issues with deputies’ use of force that were raised by the cases. Essick himself ended the yard counseling program at the jail in one of his first acts in office. As a lieutenant, he also was the department liaison helping to set up and guide the independent watchdog agency that now reviews Sheriff’s Office internal investigations on use of force and makes recommendations on policy reforms.

“When lawsuits occur and settlements occur, it’s a time to examine what are the lessons learned, what are the causes of that incident and what are the things as leaders we can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?” Essick said.

So far, the Board of Supervisors has shown no interest in backfilling the Sheriff’s Office’s deficit, which like most county departments is driven by rising payroll costs and plunging tax revenue amid the coronavirus recession. And the standoff between supervisors and Essick escalated in recent weeks following the board’s unanimous Aug. 7 decision to place a measure on the November ballot that would broaden the authority and boost the budget of the law enforcement auditor agency Essick helped to set up. He said the ballot measure is legally flawed and strongly opposes it. The vocal union representing the county’ s nearly 300 deputies has also come out against it.

Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin, in an interview last week, sought to smooth the troubled waters, saying she wouldn’t ascribe blame for the insurance premium increases.

“Every time we have a tragedy involving officer-involved shootings, it’s a lesson to the community, and, I would hope, to the sheriff’s department,” Gorin said. “Let’s create opportunities for re-thinking how we enforce, and what lessons can be learned.”

The political fireworks come amid a backdrop of national unrest in the wake of high-profile law enforcement killings of Black Americans.

In Sonoma County, Essick moved in June to ban the carotid restraint, the neck hold one of his deputies attempted to use Nov. 27, 2019, against Bloomfield resident David Ward after a car chase in a vehicle that Ward had reported stolen but was driving that day. Ward’s estate filed a lawsuit in May, one of 15 ongoing cases against the county Sheriff’s Office.

Another man, Donald Miller, 49, of Sacramento, died Aug. 15 after a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy shot him with a Taser numerous times during an altercation in Guerneville.

Hopkins, who represents west county, including Guerneville, has been a vocal proponent of alternative approaches to law enforcement and the need for additional overhaul. The insurance spike may be another reflection of that need, she suggested.

“I think that if we are an anomaly in the state of California, then the obvious question to ask is why, and what can we do about it?” Hopkins said. “And quite frankly, we need to be open to law enforcement oversight that includes recommendations of best practices. I do not want to be No. 1 in terms of costs that are driven by litigation and wrongful death suits.”

County costs outpace others

The Press Democrat sought liability insurance records from 16 other California counties, including all nine in the Bay Area, Los Angeles County and other counties of similar size to Sonoma County, which has about 500,000 people.

Just 11 of those counties separated liability insurance premiums by department, and sheriff’s departments in five of those counties actually saw insurance premiums drop this year compared to last year.

None of the other six had increases as high as Sonoma County’s. Monterey County reported a 34% increase and Napa County a 32% jump. Monterey County officials chalked the increase up to an annual actuarial study, but gave no further details. Napa County did not respond to a question about what fueled its increased costs.

The insurance premium increase at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office ‒ to $5.9 million per year, up from $3.2 million last year ‒ appeared as a nondescript bullet point in a summary of Sheriff’s Office cost increases for services and supplies, pegged at nearly $6 million year-over-year.

The greatest single cost in that category: “$2.7 million for general liability insurance, based on recent experience.”

Sonoma County’s liability insurance premiums rose by $2.6 million in total, including the Sheriff’s Department increase, meaning all other departments combined to save the county money on insurance.

Janelle Crane, the county’s risk manager, said that a variety of factors contributed to the rising premiums.

“With respect to recent experience, there were three significant settlements paid (in the past year) totaling $6.6 million which contributed to the increase,” Crane said, before detailing the three cases.

The $3 million settlement with Lopez’s parents, reached in December 2018, ended a prolonged and bitter legal case arising from the 2013 shooting in which then-Deputy Erick Gelhaus fatally shot the teenager on a sidewalk less than a mile from his home. Lopez was holding an airsoft pellet gun made to look like a real assault rifle.

In the painful wake of the boy’s death, the county created the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, tasked with reviewing complaints and internal investigations at the Sheriff’s Office, and body-worn cameras were widely introduced for patrol deputies and city police officers.

The Sheriff’s Office also created a professional standards unit, began using a new system for tracking use of force, and sought and received funding to install a state-of-the-art simulator to improve training for deputies, Essick said.

“That is probably the most notable case in the history of Sonoma County that I can think of,” Essick said.

Gelhaus, cleared by the district attorney of any criminal wrongdoing, was later promoted to sergeant and has since retired.

The second case, which arose in May 2015, shed light on a controversial jail discipline program in which inmates at the county Jail were restrained and yelled at one-by-one.

Seven former county inmates joined Marqus Martinez’s federal civil rights lawsuit and the county agreed to settle the case for $1.7 million in June 2018. As part of the settlement, the Sheriff’s Office agreed to retrain staff on use-of-force procedures, as well as buy body-worn cameras for sworn corrections personnel and install cameras in common areas of the jail.

In a video announcing the settlement June 11, 2018, then-Sheriff Rob Giordano, who took over for Steve Freitas in August 2017, said “some of the things we did were unacceptable,” but he refused to decommission the jail program. In June 2018, before he officially took over for Giordano, Sheriff-elect Essick pledged he would get rid of the policy.

“I banned yard counseling the first week that I was sheriff,” Essick said last week.

In third case, the county settled a lawsuit by the estate of Glenn Swindell for $1.9 million following a May 2014 SWAT deployment in response to a domestic violence report at Swindell’s home. The 12-hour siege, involving dozens of deputies, armored vehicles and tear gas, ended when Swindell shot himself.

Essick said state law requires officers to arrest someone if there’s probable cause that domestic violence occurred, but a review of the incident suggests other factors may have contributed to Swindell’s death.

“Our review determined there was a failure of leadership between the sergeant on duty and the lieutenant who was the commander on the incident,” Essick said, adding that the department modified policies, and that one of the leaders on duty retired after the incident.

The Lopez case alone cost the county $1.4 million in legal fees. Altogether, the county spent $2.5 million handling defense of the three cases. Today, the County Counsel’s Office is juggling 15 ongoing lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Office, including the Ward lawsuit. That tally actually represents a recent low. Back in June 2016, the department was embroiled in 26 lawsuits, dropping to 23 in 2017 and 17 by June 2019.

Essick has said previously that he has worked to build trust with the community and is committed to making reforms and improving transparency.

But Schwaiger, the local civil rights attorney who is representing Ward’s estate, said the Sheriff’s Office’s inaction has often overshadowed the good work it does.

“I’ve sued a lot of police departments,” Schwaiger said. “(Here) they not only refuse to admit liability, they refuse to do anything at all to change. There’s this machismo that dominates their assessment of risk.”

Call for strengthened oversight

Schwaiger was adamant that stronger oversight could have prevented the types of law enforcement actions that have led to lawsuits and multimillion-dollar settlements.

The county’s main oversight body, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, is studying the Sheriff’s Office’s rising insurance rates, IOLERO Director Karlene Navarro confirmed last month.

Navarro said she planned to discuss the matter as part of her annual report to the Board of Supervisors, expected in mid-October, according to Gorin. As part of her inquiry, Navarro sought insurance premiums and lawsuit settlements related to sheriff’s offices in a number of surrounding counties.

She began the inquiry earlier this summer amid a political tug-of-war over the proposed ballot measure to expand the authority and budget of her office. Opponents, among their many points, have raised issues about the cost of adding the measure to the ballot.

Generally, a countywide measure costs in the range of $200,000, Navarro said.

“I also think there’s a cost to not improving civilian oversight of law enforcement,” she said. “And if we want to talk about what that cost is, I think insurance premiums and civil lawsuits is a good place to start.”

Essick said Navarro is entitled to her opinion, but he said he has not seen the evidence that such oversight can curb costly legal cases and settlements involving law enforcement.

“At this point, it’s largely speculative. I think that’s a little bit of a jump,” he said. “I certainly don’t deny that someone may feel that way. That’s a valid feeling. I would want to see some empirical evidence.”

What’s behind wider insurance spike

According to a memo from PRISM, a statewide joint powers authority providing insurance for counties and municipalities, the liability insurance industry for government entities is going through a difficult time.

“We are continuing to see a significant increase in plaintiff demands and high-dollar liability claims,” said the memo obtained through a records request with Santa Barbara County. “Jury verdicts and settlements are much higher than they have been in years past, and that is affecting the industry’s surplus.”

PRISM is composed of 133 entitites, including 95% of California counties, and its members together have more than $6 billion in payroll. Eight of the 17 counties surveyed by The Press Democrat, including Sonoma County, have existing partnerships with PRISM.

In just the past few years, the group formerly known as the California State Association of Counties Excess Insurance Authority has documented a rising number of large government settlements. There have been 30 verdicts totaling $30 million or more, including one PRISM member, for example. And the agency cited jury verdicts of $80 million, $100 million and even $2 billion — an Alameda County jury’s May 2019 verdict in a case against Monsanto, the agrochemical giant. A judge slashed that award to less than $90 million two months later.

Among PRISM members specifically, the number of claims over $1 million in the last five years has more than doubled, the group says.

“This is a big indication of how jury verdicts and settlements are increasing!” the memo states.

Scott Johnson, deputy director of human resources for San Mateo County, blamed a variety of complex factors for growing premiums.

“It is not just jury verdicts. The unpredictable legislator can impact an insurance company’s participation in the market,” Johnson said, offering an example.

Add to that gargantuan claims in the wake of destructive fires, with California enduring in recent years seven of the 10 most costly wildland blazes.

“The companies that write liability insurance also write property insurance,” Johnson said, “So you have to think about world markets and all losses as a whole.”

Johnson said excess insurance carriers like PRISM have in recent years doubled annual loss estimates, known as “the working layer.” Where those losses were once estimated at $10 million, Johnson said carriers now view the first $20 million to $25 million as the new working layer.

“They are now pricing the excess layers in such a way it indicates they are expecting losses to occur on a regular basis up to $25 million,” Johnson said.

Hopkins said it’s important to look at the local insurance increases in terms of dollars and cents, and taxpayer money, but she also said these types of cases inflict real trauma on the community. She cited the Lopez case, which took more than five years to reach a settlement agreement.

The county has a $1 million deductible in each case, and Schwaiger contended it would pay out far less if it committed to settling cases earlier. He sees more cases coming.

“With the way things are going with the sheriff’s department, all we can see over the horizon is litigation,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy

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