I-Team: Metro Pays Millions in Lawsuits

LAS VEGAS -- Each year, Las Vegas police settle dozens of cases out of court -- traffic stops gone bad, civil rights violations and other cases where officers essentially went too far and someone sued. It's millions of dollars of taxpayer money for mistakes.

When you have a sizeable police force like Metro, not everything on the beat is going to go as planned. But when problems on patrol force the department to settle and pay up, it's money all sides say did not have to be spent.

In one case, it began with a beard. Steve Riback, a decade-long veteran of Metro's Vice Squad, is a devout Orthodox Jew. He was told unit cohesion and department stability were jeopardized simply because he wanted to practice his faith.

"It exposed my Judaism to the department," he said. "(I) essentially had a gun put to my head if I didn't shave -- I was ultimately going to get suspended, get written up, probably get fired."

So after following the proper channels and getting nowhere, he turned to ACLU's Allen Lichtenstein. Instead of letting the desk-bound Riback wear a yarmulke and beard, Metro dug in its heels. So Riback sued his bosses while staying on the force, where he remains today.

"When you believe in something, sometimes you have to fight for it," he said.

After the case bounced around in court, Metro settled out of court for $350,000. Riback's case is just one of the dozens adding up to $5.3 million in three years alone.

Take Paola Armeni's famous case. Armeni's client, Christopher Tortu, caused a scene at McCarran International Airport and was eventually handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police SUV. Only then, according to court documents, did a Metro officer nearly crush Tortu's testicles to get him to calm down. It was police brutality, according to Armeni.

"To go that extra step after he was handcuffed in the back of a car and clearly a threat to nobody, it was a malicious act," said Armeni.

That case was settled for $400,000 to keep the PR problems from getting worse. It is just part of the gamesmanship of the courtroom, says UNLV law professor Jeffrey Stempel.

"A settlement is often considered the best justice because it's a compromise that both parties can live with," he said.

But he also says part of settling is quitting while you're ahead. Settling can actually be cheaper than leaving justice up to a jury.

"For the most part, it's a matter of dollars and sense for both the plaintiff and the defendant," said Stempel.

Metro's attorney Jeffrey Roch says people shouldn't look at settlements are admissions of fault.

"We receive an allegation because a lawsuit is nothing more than that, an allegation," he said.

Sometimes there are mistakes, ones that you can't win and settlements save cost in the long run.

"If you take a look at it and we're at fault, there's no need for us to drag it all the way through the litigation process unless we can come to a fair agreement on what the damages are," said Roch.

Metro has a separate trust fund set aside in the budget just to handle settlements and attorney's fees. Roch has a staff of four and sometimes outside counsel must be brought in to assist with the cases, adding even more cost.


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