Once referred to by a local attorney as the “Million Dollar Man,” a former sheriff’s deputy cost the county of Sacramento more than $2 million in awards and settlements during his 23 years on the force.
By the time Donald Black retired Oct. 1 following his arrest on suspicion of child molestation and steroid possession, his actions had resulted in at least 10 payouts by the county, most of them involving excessive force allegations, according to a spreadsheet provided to The Sacramento Bee in response to a Public Records Act request. The largest payout – $1.5 million – went to a woman who had a 3-inch chunk of flesh taken out of her calf by Black’s then-K-9 partner. In another case, according to a court complaint, Black and another deputy allegedly terrified a man during a traffic stop by pointing an unloaded pellet gun at his head and pulling the trigger.
Black, who was arrested by Nevada County authorities in September, retired from the department before the conclusion of two internal administrative investigations initiated by his arrest.
Even some who are familiar with Black’s controversial history expressed shock at the $2 million total payout – and questioned how a deputy who had become such a financial liability managed to keep his job.
“It’s utterly amazing…. This guy is off the charts,” said local attorney Stewart Katz, who represented the man awarded $90,000 in the pellet gun incident.
“It would (have been) cheaper for him to never work a day,” Katz said.
At the time that he retired, Black, 43, earned about $95,000 annually, including educational incentive pay. He has begun to draw his pension, totaling almost $5,400 per month, according to county spokeswoman Chris Andis. Even if Black is convicted of any of the charges he faces, he is likely to remain eligible for that money, according to guidelines in the California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2014.
The extent to which Black’s bosses tried to discipline him remains unclear, because of privacy laws protecting his personnel history. But court records show he was disciplined in at least two cases, though an arbitrator reversed some of that discipline. County Sheriff Scott Jones said he could not discuss Black, his record or his criminal case.
Black’s criminal attorney, Shannon Baker, declined to comment or make her client available to speak to The Bee.
Black is scheduled to return to Nevada Superior Court today for a hearing in his criminal case. On Nov. 4, he was arraigned on five felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child and four misdemeanor counts of possession of a controlled substance – in this case, steroids. He pleaded not guilty.
According to court records, Black is accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with a relative between June 2006 and July 2007, when the boy was 14 or 15 years old. The records describe three different instances of alleged abuse.
The victim, now an adult, came forward with the allegations on Sept. 20, according to documents associated with a temporary restraining order protecting the victim from contact with Black.
During the course of the investigation, Black’s ex-wife, Lisa Stambaugh, told detectives she worried that she and her family would be in danger when the allegations became public. She said Black had threatened to “off himself” before, and that she feared he would kill her before killing himself, according to the court documents.
Stambaugh described Black as “nuts,” and said he had kept in contact with informants he worked with during his time as a narcotics detective.
“Stambaugh advised (that) Black has made comments that if he needed something done, ‘things can be handled,’” according to a statement filed in support of the restraining order.
Black’s ex-wife also cited his SWAT training (he was on the sheriff’s team for a probationary period before he was cut), role as a firearms instructor and ownership of guns as reasons for her concern, records show.
In court documents, Black denied the allegations against him. Still, a judge issued the temporary restraining order – which required Black to turn in his guns – Oct. 2. It remains in effect, with the next hearing scheduled for May.
The nature of the allegations shocked Black’s department, as well as other law enforcement officers in the area. But many of those who knew Black or were familiar with his reputation weren’t surprised to see him in trouble again: Black had a long history of disciplinary issues, only some of which drew public attention.
He was perhaps most well-known for his role in the infamous 2005 “flash-bang” incident at the Sacramento County Main Jail – also known internally as the “B nights” fiasco, referring to the shift on which it occurred. After several inmates clogged their toilets in protest, a team of deputies in full riot gear tossed “flash-bang” devices into six cells to extract the inmates. The team was led by Black, then a recently promoted sergeant still on probation. The devices – typically used in riot or hostage situations – burned two inmates, and a third was injured by deputies in the extraction. Collectively, the inmates reaped more than $400,000 from the county in late 2009.
According to the spreadsheet provided to The Bee, the county also paid out the following claims or settlements in response to complaints about Black:
At the time he filed Ganas’ federal civil rights complaint in 2008, Katz, already was aware of Black’s reputation, stating in the court document that Sacramento County had paid more than $1 million to date “as a result of Black’s malfeasance.”
“It is believed that he is the only Million Dollar Man still with the department,” Katz wrote. “It is also believed that he is the only deputy ever for whom the County has paid compensation in at least seven different cases.”
‘This guy’s orbit’
In a recent interview, Katz said the current $2 million total is appalling. A good officer can get into a difficult situation and make a mistake that costs the county money, Katz said, without it being a reflection of his or her fitness for the job. But a history like Black’s signals an alarming trend that should have been addressed, he said.
“The stars can align in a bad way for someone,” he said. “But in this case, that’s just what this guy’s orbit is.”
William Vizzard, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, said it is not unusual for a law enforcement officer to be the subject of a legal claim or lawsuit. The vast majority of them, however, never gain any traction, he said, so he agreed Black’s history is unusual.
“Most people go through their career without anybody collecting a liability suit against them,” he said.
A law enforcement officer’s personnel file – including any complaints or discipline against him or her – is confidential under California law. But some of Black’s issues are laid out in Superior Court and federal court records. These records indicate that Black didn’t go unpunished, at least not in connection with the flash-bang incident. They indicate, however, that he prevailed in overturning some of the discipline meted out.
Then-Sheriff John McGinness demoted Black from the rank of sergeant and suspended him for 240 hours because of his role in the flash-bang incident, according to Superior Court records. But when Black appealed, an arbitrator later ordered him reinstated as a sergeant. He also determined that Black had not intentionally lied to detectives investigating his role in the incident, and reduced the suspension to 20 hours, according to court records.
When Black’s probationary period as a sergeant ended, however, command staff demoted him to deputy because of the flash-bang incident, according to court records. He again appealed, but was not successful.
Less than two months before the flash-bang incident, Black was involved in another Main Jail incident for which he was disciplined. McGinness ordered him suspended for 24 hours; an arbitrator rescinded the suspension and instead ordered that the department issue him a written warning in lieu of discipline, according to court records.
On Friday, McGinness said he could not discuss Black’s case because of confidentiality concerns. But generally speaking, he said arbitrators are expected to review an officer’s entire employment history – including past complaints or punishments – when deciding the appropriate recourse.
He said it is appropriate to question how any officer with a lengthy history might continue to stay employed. His answer is that human beings are making the decisions.
“Good people can disagree on things,” McGinness said.
While he would not discuss Black’s tenure specifically, current Sheriff Jones said that when looking at a deputy’s cumulative case file, one must consider each event individually as well as the “length of service and quality of service” in between any issues. It must be taken into account, he said, whether a deputy appears to have learned from any previous discipline.
“You hope what you did was rehabilitate them,” he said.
Jones said he does not want the community to think that “we’re not handling our own.”
“We are,” he said, adding that since he was sworn in as sheriff at the end of 2010, he has fired 30 deputies, the most recent termination occurring last week.