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Two of Orange County’s top officials are backing a searing watchdog report that found major lawsuit risks from problematic use-of-force training, policies and culture at the OC Sheriff’s Department.

Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Don Wagner – who oversee payouts over sheriff lawsuits as well as the county budget – told Voice of OC they see validity in the Office of Independent Review’s findings released Wednesday

“I do think that additional and specific training may be a valid idea and could result in a reduction in these excessive force [lawsuit] claims in the future,” said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett in a Thursday statement to Voice of OC.

“The key will be to hire the appropriate and qualified instructors to create a program to address the issues of excessive force that are outlined in the [Office of Independent Review] report,” she said.

Excessive force claims have cost Orange County taxpayers over $13 million in payouts over the last decade, with total sheriff lawsuit payouts topping $40 million, a Voice of OC review of county payout data found. 

Among the claims are multi-million-dollar payouts over shootings of unarmed people.

Wagner echoed Bartlett’s sentiment.

“I see validity in what the OIR report says,” he said in a Thursday text message to Voice of OC.

“I believe the general public, the deputies themselves, and the people the deputies deal with will all benefit by identification of and adherence to best practices in law enforcement.”

Asked for comment on the supervisors’ support of Perez’ findings, Sheriff Don Barnes’ office said the sheriff “will address issues with the Board directly.”

The top union leader for sheriff’s deputies agreed with supervisors that improving training and policies could help reduce taxpayer payouts on lawsuits.

“Due to the dangerous nature of law enforcement, excessive force claims will not be eliminated. However, we agree that increased training and updated policies may eliminate some payouts related to excessive force claims,” said Juan Viramontes, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, in a Thursday statement.

Viramontes said the more training given to deputies, the better the overall situation will be.

“AOCDS continuously advocates for the need to increase training, and updated policies and practices on behalf of our members. The more we educate and train our deputies on best practices will only improve the safety and service for our members and our community.”

Earlier this week, the county’s internal law enforcement watchdog found a “troubling” use-of-force training, policy and culture at the department that increases the risk of big taxpayer payouts for lawsuits.

Among the issues identified by Office of Independent Review (OIR) director Sergio Perez were a lack of clarity for deputies on how to de-escalate situations, leaving leeway for using “alternative” force that’s not in policy or training. 

Perez also said some of the training stigmatizes people with mental illness – including a trainer stereotyping all people with mental illness as “potential murderers.”

A trainer also told deputies about how “in my day,” fellow deputies would find jail areas outside the view of cameras to “tweak a problem inmate’s fingers” – without cautioning that’s illegal and violates department policy, according to the Office of Independent Review’s report.

These kinds of training and policy problems increase the risk of costly taxpayer payouts, Perez says, adding those costs likely can be reduced in the future by fixing these issues.

“I believe that the misuse of force, and excessive use of force is tied to the policies, training and practices of the department,” Perez said in an interview.

He said the deputy training is missing elements that could help avoid lawsuits.

“Some of the force policies the department has lack necessary detail to guide deputy action with regards to force. That lack of detail may make it more likely that we have the kind of events that lead to … lawsuits, and that result in heavy financial penalties,” he added “Addressing these issues will likely mitigate the kinds of events that lead to lawsuits and payouts.”

Sheriff Don Barnes’ office defended the current approach when asked if the sheriff agrees or disagrees with Perez.

“That is one perspective,” department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in a statement to Voice of OC Thursday.

She said the department policies match industry standards.  

“We have robust policies that are consistent with industry standards. The Sheriff considers multiple evidence-based perspectives when determining the best policies and practices to provide exceptional law enforcement services to the residents of Orange County,” Braun said.

Altogether, taxpayers have shelled out about $40 million over the last decade for all types of wrongdoing claims against the Sheriff’s Department.

That includes not just payouts for excessive force allegations, but also on claims of deputies engaging in wrongful arrests, sexual assault, civil rights violations, malicious prosecution and injuring people after running red lights.

Among the excessive force payouts in the last decade were:

Taxpayers also are on the hook for $3.4 million a jury ordered the county to pay over the shooting of an unarmed man in Yorba Linda, an amount that wasn’t included in the county payout data provided to Voice of OC.

Among the most serious problems, according to the recent watchdog report, is a policy letting deputies use “alternative” force that they’re not trained on and that’s not described in policy.

“These vulnerabilities increase risk for the public, the Department, and the County,” the report states.

Additionally, the report states, “OCSD policies do not provide enough information on de-escalation and other critical areas, including the use of lethal force.”

One of the highest-profile sheriff incidents this year involved a jail deputy injuring a mentally ill inmate by pouring extremely hot water on the inmate’s arms after he wouldn’t stop hanging his arms out of a cell hatch.

Sheriff officials referred the deputy to the DA for possible criminal prosecution, and placed the deputy and two others on leave pending an internal investigation.

“I am absolutely intolerant of this behavior,” Sheriff Barnes said in a statement at the time.

The Office of Independent Review watchdog report credited the department for much of its policies and training, but recommended fixing a series of problems Perez identified.

“The OIR has found much for which OCSD is to be commended regarding how deputies use force and engage with members of the community,” Perez wrote.

“Even so, the issues identified throughout the OIR’s investigation suggest that there is work to be done to ensure that policy and training reflect best practices and that, in turn, such policies and training are soundly implemented in the County’s jails and on its streets,” he added.

The deputies’ union credited Perez’ report and said it stands ready to collaborate in improving training.

“We are pleased the OIR commended the Department’s current practices. The OIR also identified what it felt were critical areas for improvement,” Viramontes told Voice of OC.

“We look forward to meeting with the Department and OIR over the implementation of any of these proposed recommendations.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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