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Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca cautioned deputies to be more cautious about using their weapons after a spate of officer-involved shootings in 2009.
The L.A.County Board of Supervisors has approved nearly $2 million in settlements in lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department. The largest payout, $900,000, went to the family of Darrick Collins, a 36-year-old man shot to death in 2009 by a deputy near Collins' West Athens home.
Collins' death came amidst a rash of shootings by sheriff's deputies and sparked outrage in South L.A. communities. That led to policy changes at the sheriff's department, with Sheriff Lee Baca instructing deputies to try to contain potentially armed suspects and call backup instead of confronting them immediately.
According to court records, deputies had been looking for two robbery suspects when they spotted Collins and a friend standing on the sidewalk a quarter mile from the robbery site. The two apparently matched the suspects' descriptions. When the deputies approached the men, Collins allegedly backed away, reached into his waistband and then ran.
One of the deputies said he saw a black object in Collins' hand as he passed through a fence gate and "positioned himself" on the other side of the fence. The deputy hit Collins with three shots. Collins was unarmed, holding a cell phone in his hand when he died. He also allegedly had a bag of ecstacy tablets in his pocket. Deputies determined he was not the robber they were looking for.
Collins' family sued the department, eventually agreeing to a settlement, which was approved Tuesday.
"I believe that amount of the settlement reflects that there are some things that occurred that night that could have been prevented," said attorney Brian Dunn, who represented the Collins family. "This was a shooting of an unarmed man and it was a shooting of a man who was simply running away from the deputy."
The L.A. District Attorney's office, which investigates officer-involved shootings for possible criminal charges, found that the deputy "acted lawfully, in self defense." Dunn says the Collins death and other recent fatal police shootings point to a problem in law enforcement.
"Police culture is changing," he said. "There used to be an attitude among law enforcement that they would do anything possible to avoid deadly force. Now, the issue of the use of deadly force is becoming a first resort rather than last resort. I think that at this particular time in Southern California, it’s almost reaching a boiling point."
Last year, an L.A. Times investigation found officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County were up 70 percent from the year before. But so far this year, the numbers are down.