A federal judge in Sacramento signed off on a settlement Friday in the Placer County Jail abuse case that calls for the county to initiate sweeping new reforms in the county’s two jails and to create a fund of more than $1.4 million to pay off claims by inmates.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Kendall J. Newman signed a tentative approval in a class-action lawsuit brought against Placer County last year following Sheriff Devon Bell’s revelation that three sheriff’s officials had been arrested on allegations of using excessive force on inmates and trying to cover it up.
A permanent settlement approval is expected in March, but officials on both sides say changes already have been made in the sheriff’s office’s training and at the jails to prevent a recurrence of incidents that sparked several lawsuits by inmates and, ultimately, the class action suit filed by Penn Valley lawyer Patrick Dwyer and Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin.
“Mr. Merin and I believe that the county is making a serious effort to change operations at the jails so this does not occur again,” Dwyer said Friday. “There’s been real forward movement by the county.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Andrew Scott said many of the changes called for in the settlement agreement already have been made, including adding video cameras to keep tabs on operations inside the jails, tripling storage space for videos, a new use-of-force policy and additional staffing.
“This is a step in the process toward getting this whole thing resolved, and I’d say some of the most significant steps are making improvements at the jails, and looking back and making sure these things do not reoccur,” Scott said.
Scott said the sheriff’s office already has increased supervision at the jails and that Bell had created a professional standards unit for the office shortly after the scandal was discovered.
“That’s one of the things that is seen as extremely important as the sheriff’s office goes forward,” Scott said.
The agreement also calls for the office to track all use-of-force incidents and provide quarterly reports on them to inmate lawyers through December 2019.
The settlement stems from the sheriff’s announcement in May 2017 that three officials had been arrested on charges involving excessive force and falsifying evidence after a sheriff’s deputy who was reviewing video recordings found they did not match up with details recorded in a use-of-force report.
Since then, six civil suits and a claim have been settled by the county for a total of $1.25 million. Those include one by Beau Bangert, a mentally ill man whose suit alleged he was Tased repeatedly and beaten unconscious while being held at the Auburn Jail.
Bangert, who eventually settled his suit for $250,000, also is the main named plaintiff in the class-action matter and under terms of the agreement will be paid another $50,000 as an “incentive fee” for pursuing the action, according to court documents.
The agreement calls for the county to create a settlement fund of $1,449,700 to cover claims submitted by inmates who were in the jails between Aug. 11, 2015, through Aug. 14 of this year and who file claims involving abuse.
Payments from the fund may range from $1,500 to $100,000, and all members of the inmate class are to be mailed notices about the settlement along with claim forms. Court documents also call for the creation of a website providing basic information about the claims, court documents say.
If more claims come in than expected, the payout amounts can be reduced; if fewer claims come in the money left over goes back to the county.
The settlement fund also includes paying the inmate’s lawyers fees of $478,401, documents say.
Supervising Deputy County Counsel Brett Holt said officials do not yet know how many inmates are included in the class and noted that the settlement does not include any admission of wrongdoing by the county.
But Holt said the county has moved quickly to improve conditions at the jails, including spending $1.41 million to increase video surveillance and triple the amount of video storage to three years’ worth from 366 days.
The county is self-insured up to $1 million, meaning the county paid that out for the settlements of the class-action suit and the individual cases, with insurance covering the remainder of the $2.75 million total.
Cases against two of the three jail officials arrested in 2017 still are pending; charges against a third were dismissed in April for insufficient evidence.