By Mike Brodheim and Alex Friedmann
WITH SEVEN FACILITIES THAT HOUSE from 15,000 to 18,000 prisoners, Los Angeles County’s jail system is the nation’s largest – and, arguably, among the most dangerous in terms of staff-on-prisoner violence.
The jail system, operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), is facing an investigation by the FBI into allegations of corruption and abuse, as well as multiple lawsuits. Sheriff Leroy David “Lee” Baca, 70, has committed to numerous reforms following a report and recommendations by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, but people familiar with long-standing problems in the county’s jails remain skeptical.
A Continuing Culture of Violence
THE LASD JAIL SYSTEM HAS BEEN UNDER federal court oversight since the 1970s when, following a 17-day trial, an injunction was issued that ordered the county to improve jail conditions – including overcrowding, inadequate exercise, and lack of clean clothing and telephone access. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had initially sued Los Angeles County in 1975, alleging that overcrowded conditions, systematic abuse of prisoners by sheriff’s deputies and inadequate medical care violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. See: Rutherford v. Baca, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. CV 75-04111 DDP. [PLN, March 2007, p.35].
A renewed deterioration of jail conditions led to the reopening of the case in 1984. Since then, a number of court-appointed parties and experts, including the ACLU, have been monitoring conditions within the county’s jail system. Other oversight agencies include the Office of Independent Review (OIR) and Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
In December 2010, the ACLU asked the federal court to order a new trial in the case based on what it described as “an escalating crisis of deputy violence, abuse, and inmate suicides.” Between 2006 and 2011 there were 5,630 use of force incidents reported in county jail facilities, and according to the LASD’s own data, deputies are more likely to use force against mentally ill prisoners. Of the 582 use of force incidents reported in 2011, about one-third involved prisoners with mental health problems.
In the past, the Sheriff’s Department had been able to dismiss the majority of allegations of abuse and misconduct by stressing that “inmates lie.” What made the situation different this time was that some of the alleged abuse was witnessed by civilians whose firsthand accounts were not so easily discounted.
On September 28, 2011, the ACLU National Prison Project and ACLU of Southern California (ACLU-SC) issued a report titled “Cruel and Usual Punishment: How a Savage Gang of Deputies Controls LA County Jails.” The report stated that LASD deputies “have attacked inmates for complaining about property missing from their cells. They have beaten inmates for asking for medical treatment, for the nature of their alleged offenses, and for the color of their skin. They have beaten inmates in wheelchairs. They have beaten an inmate, paraded him naked down a jail module, and placed him in a cell to be sexually assaulted. Many attacks are unprovoked. Nearly all go unpunished: these acts of violence are covered up by a department that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness of deputy violence in the jail system.”
The report cited 70 sworn declarations detailing abuse by deputies that were filed with the district court in Rutherford v. Baca. Among the declarations were statements from victimized prisoners, an ACLU monitor, two chaplains and a Hollywood producer, Scott Budnick, who had volunteered his time at the jail for four years, teaching prisoners how to write.
Budnick, who produced the movies The Hangover and The Hangover Part II, said that he had witnessed deputies restrain and Taser a prone prisoner, and that another deputy later boasted to him, “Yeah, we fuck these guys up all the time.” Budnick was “so disgusted” by what he saw and heard that he stopped visiting the jails in 2008.
One of the chaplains, Deacon Paulino Juarez-Ramirez with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, stated that he had witnessed three incidents where prisoners were beaten by deputies, including one that occurred inside a chapel. Following the third incident, at the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in 2009, Juarez-Ramirez stopped visiting the facility out of fear.
Jail prisoner Jimmie Knott said he was incarcerated at the MCJ in June 2010 when he and dozens of other prisoners were lined up in a hallway, waiting to receive hepatitis shots. He asked a deputy if he could get a new pair of shoes, since his were falling apart. In response, he was ordered to strip and get on his knees, then was beaten by a number of deputies.
“I went to the ground,” he said. “They were kneeing me in my ribs, in my back, in my temple. There were lots of blows at the same time. They were stepping on my arms, but my hands were free and I was trying to cover my face and head with my hands to protect myself. Two of them kept telling me to put my hands behind my back, but I couldn’t because they were stepping on my arm. They were just cussing and stuff, telling me to put my hands behind my back, but they wouldn’t let me. I was never resisting.”
Knott said he was scared to report the incident, since the deputies had threatened him to keep quiet, so he told a nurse that he had fallen down some stairs. “I didn’t even fight with the deputies,” he stated. “I just asked for some shoes.”
The ACLU report also described incidents in which deputies used “inmates against other inmates, using them as pawns to carry out acts of violence.” One such incident involved detainee Juan Pablo Reyes, who was brutally beaten by deputies, resulting in a broken eye socket; the deputies then paraded him naked in front of other prisoners and referred to him as “gay.” They placed him in a cell with gang members who assaulted him and repeatedly raped him while shoving his head in a toilet and flushing it. Deputies ignored Reyes’ pleas for help.
Additionally, ACLU monitor Esther Lim reported that in January 2011, while she was talking with a detainee, she witnessed two deputies, identified as Richard Garcia and Ryan Hirsch, beating prisoner James Parker and then using a stun gun on his limp body.
The deputies continued to beat Parker for two minutes, according to Lim, even though he appeared unconscious and was not fighting back. In Lim’s words, Parker “looked like a mannequin that was being used as a punching bag.” She believed the deputies did not know she was present to witness the incident. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.45].
In a shameful display of political posturing, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office then colluded with the Sheriff’s Department to shield the deputies involved in Parker’s beating from criminal prosecution. Instead of charging the deputies with assault, the District Attorney charged Parker with three counts of battery and resisting arrest.
The move backfired. A mistrial was declared in Parker’s trial in September 2011, when the jury indicated that it was unable to reach a verdict. Embarrassingly for the Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office, a majority of the jurors voted to acquit Parker. Said Parker’s attorney, Damon Hobdy, “The allegations are made up and this man didn’t do what they said he did. To cover it up, they put those charges on him.”
Michael Proctor, the attorney representing ACLU monitor Lim, said the jury’s decision “shows the average citizen thought Esther Lim’s testimony was right on and very credible and the deputies’ testimony was not, and I think that’s sad.” He added, “The DA should have taken an independent look at this and said ‘no thank you’” to filing charges against Parker.
Shortly after the ACLU’s report was released in September 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI had launched a broad investigation into deputy-on-prisoner violence and corruption in the LASD jail system. The FBI also began an investigation into Parker’s beating, based on Lim’s account of that incident, and opened a probe into the beating of another jail detainee, Kevin King, who had filed an unsuccessful lawsuit alleging that he was beaten by deputies who broke his jaw.
“Obviously it’s important that corruption and any criminal misconduct in any law enforcement agency get rooted out, not just for public safety but, frankly, for the sake of the organization,” said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, Jr. in January 2012, when federal prosecutors charged former LASD deputy Gilbert Michel, 38, for smuggling a cell phone and other contraband to an MCJ prisoner in exchange for bribes. In a letter to a county supervisor, Sheriff Baca stated that Michel had also “made statements which implicated him, along with several other jail employees, as having participated in four prior unreported incidents of improper uses of force.”
“There appears to be a problem with the culture inside the jail,” said Martin Horn, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections. “It’s a culture that sees the inmates as demons. It values loyalty within the uniformed force over loyalty to a higher code.”
Nor was abuse by jail deputies limited to prisoners. In at least one case, a visitor to the MCJ, Gabriel Moses Carrillo, 23, was savagely beaten by deputies in a break room near the visitors’ lobby at the jail. During the February 26, 2011 incident, Carrillo was reportedly kicked and punched while he was handcuffed, and sprayed with pepper spray. He yelled that he couldn’t breathe. “Shut the fuck up,” he said a deputy told him. “If you can talk, you can breathe.”
Carrillo and his girlfriend were at the jail to visit his brother; they both had cell phones, which were against jail rules. While he admitted that he mouthed off to deputies, he said he didn’t deserve the severe beating that followed. Carrillo was then charged with attacking the deputies instead of the other way around. The charges were later dropped, and the FBI included the incident in its probe of violence in the LASD jail system.
The Undersheriff Behind the Scenes
IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT AN ORGANIZATION’S culture is determined from the top down; that is, subordinates take their cues from management. An extensive investigation by LA Justice Report indicated that, for at least eight years, Sheriff Baca entrusted day-to-day operational decision-making at LASD jails to Paul K. Tanaka, 53, a man of questionable character who serves as the Department’s Undersheriff. Tanaka reportedly sports a tattoo identifying himself as a one-time member of the Vikings, a deputy clique once described by a federal judge as a “neo-Nazi” gang.
In 1988, Tanaka had been one of five deputies who shot Hong Pyo Lee, a 21-year-old Korean immigrant, 15 times after a car chase. A Long Beach police officer who witnessed the shooting described it as an execution. Though Tanaka was cleared of wrongdoing, the county was forced to shell out almost a million dollars to settle a subsequent wrongful death suit.
Tanaka hitched his wagon to Baca’s long-shot campaign for sheriff in 1998, a campaign that Baca won when former Sheriff Sherman Block died unexpectedly just days before the election. A certified public accountant, Tanaka managed – and reportedly continues to manage – Baca’s campaign funds. Baca rewarded Tanaka, then a lieutenant, by making him one of his top aides shortly after he was elected Sheriff.
Tanaka’s subsequent rise to power within the department was nothing short of meteoric. Two camps formed inside the Sheriff’s Department – those “in the car” with Tanaka and those on the outside. The former were allegedly promoted quickly, insulated from poor work performance and rewarded for their loyalty to Tanaka and for making contributions to his political campaigns – since 2005, Tanaka has served as mayor of the City of Gardena; prior to that, he was elected to the city council.
“The result of this in-crowd/out-crowd system,” LA Justice Report concluded, “is a department beset by violence in its jails, insubordination in its ranks and multiple federal investigations into criminal misdeeds” – which, in large part, was attributed to the rise of Paul Tanaka, an administrator known for telling deputies to “work in the gray”; i.e., to “do whatever it takes” to get the job done.
Tanaka was recently implicated in a federal investigation involving an FBI informant. In August 2011, Sheriff’s deputies found a cell phone in the possession of MCJ prisoner Anthony Brown. The phone had been used to call the FBI, and Brown had taken photos to document excessive use of force by deputies, which he provided to FBI agents who visited him at the jail. The FBI was using the evidence collected by Brown in its investigation into violence by Sheriff’s Department employees.
After LASD officials realized that Brown had been cooperating with the FBI they began transferring him to different facilities under different names, making it difficult for federal agents to locate him. Sheriff’s officials also questioned him about what he had seen in the jail and whether he intended to testify. “I didn’t know it then, but they were hiding me from the feds,” Brown stated. Tanaka was reportedly at a meeting of LASD staff where the decision was made to hide Brown from the FBI.
Sheriff’s officials, however, said Brown was transferred to protect him from deputies, and denied that federal agents had tried to visit him. “He was frightened not of inmates but of deputies because he was snitching on deputies,” said LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore. “We were moving him around to protect him from any kind of retaliation.”
Apparently that explanation didn’t satisfy the FBI, and the LASD’s actions were presented to a federal grand jury to determine whether they constituted interference with a federal investigation. According to a December 18, 2012 report in the Los Angeles Times, several sheriff’s employees told the grand jury that the LASD was hiding Brown from the FBI and that Tanaka was involved in the deception. Whitmore denied that was the case, and thus far no federal charges have been filed.
Criticism Mounts Against Baca
IN SEPTEMBER 2011, A GROUP OF CIVIL rights attorneys and other concerned citizens signed an ACLU letter petitioning federal authorities to conduct an investigation into a “persistent pattern of deputy-on-inmate assaults, deputy instigated inmate-on-inmate assaults and use of excessive force” in the LASD jail system. The signatories included Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Irvine School of Law; civil rights attorney Connie Rice (sister of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice); former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and former U.S. Assistant Attorney Thomas Brown.
Also, somewhat reluctantly, the ACLU called for Baca’s resignation – a call that was echoed by at least one Los Angeles Times columnist. Sheriff Baca, long regarded as a visionary, had failed to live up to the expectations of his many supporters.
By most accounts, Baca is both progressive and well-intentioned. In his 14 years as Sheriff for Los Angeles County, he has introduced anger management programs as well as educational and parenting classes for jail prisoners.
“I am trying to trigger self-analysis in all inmates,” Baca said, in order to provide an opportunity for an “ideological, spiritual conversion from self-doubt and self-loathing to one of possessing strength.”
Former Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten suggested that the Sheriff’s inspirational message might not be appealing to some of his staff. “I don’t think he has ever really had much success in moving his values down the food chain,” Rutten opined. “Left to his own devices, he is a decent guy, but his managerial hold on the department is tenuous.”
Connie Rice agreed that Baca “has the right vision, but the rest of the department doesn’t want to follow.” However, she also stated, with apparent exasperation, “Having school for inmates, teaching them to read, doing a rehabilitation program … that’s fantastic, I think. But can you just keep them from being beaten to death?”
According to Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, “The time has long passed when Baca could be the positive agent of change.” She added, “We’ve been bringing these problems to him for years, and it should have been overwhelmingly obvious to him” that reforms were needed.
But the Sheriff received a boost in credibility after James Parker, whose beating had spurred a federal investigation into violence in LASD jails, pleaded no contest to one count of resisting a deputy in connection with the incident involving deputies Garcia and Hirsch that was witnessed by ACLU monitor Esther Lim. While Sheriff’s officials cited Parker’s plea as evidence that he had been the aggressor, Parker’s attorney said the plea agreement would result in his client’s release, and that Parker did not want to remain in jail while fighting the charges.
“The fact that the D.A. has insisted on continuing this case [after the initial mistrial] when both the county and the FBI have confirmed they’re investigating the deputies for criminal behavior is and will remain a black eye on the face of the D.A.’s office,” stated Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU-SC.
A public outcry over the LASD’s transparent efforts to cover up the abuse by deputies Garcia and Hirsch, combined with the ACLU report, the FBI investigation and growing scrutiny by the news media, led Sheriff Baca to announce, on October 9, 2011, the formation of two jail task forces. The first, the Special Jail Investigations Task Force, was responsible for investigating 78 reported incidents of abuse in the LASD jail system. The second, the Commander Management Task Force for Custody Operations Division, was apparently intended to improve public relations among jail detainees and staff, for example by providing community meetings where prisoners could air complaints.
Who did Baca appoint to head the Special Jail Investigations Task Force? Paul Tanaka, who was to oversee other high-ranking Sheriff’s officials, including Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo (Tanaka’s former deputy squad car partner) and Commanders Eric Parra, Joseph Fennel, Christy Guyovich and James Hellmold. All had made donations to Tanaka’s election campaign, and all except Parra were reportedly close Tanaka allies.
Said one unidentified Sheriff’s Department supervisor, “It’s like sending the wolves in to figure out what happened to the henhouse.”
Additional Reports Cite More Problems
IN OCTOBER 2011, THE OFFICE OF INDEpendent Review (OIR), which monitors the Sheriff’s Department and ensures “that allegations of officer misconduct involving [the] LASD are investigated in thorough, fair, and effective ways,” released a report detailing a dozen incidents that resulted in around 30 jail employees being disciplined or fired for using excessive force against prisoners or failing to report abuse. The 25-page report noted that “it cannot be denied that deputies some-times use unnecessary force against inmates in the jails, either to exact punishment or to retaliate for something the in-mate is perceived to have done.”
While deputies are disciplined in some cases, allegations of abuse cannot always be substantiated, the OIR acknowledged. However, the report expressed concern that “the times in which deputies ‘get away’ with using excessive force may be on the rise.”
The OIR also noted “troubling signs” that “deputies may have subverted their loyalty to the Department’s core values with allegiance to a particular group of fellow deputies,” and cited “the use of ‘gang-like’ signs to identify their affinity to a particular floor within the jail.” The report continued, “Perhaps most concerning is the evidence that jail supervisors apparently knew about the use of ‘gang-like’ signs and other troubling behavior [by deputies]…” but failed to take action.
Indeed, the Sheriff’s Department subsequently, albeit reluctantly, acknowledged the existence within its ranks of gang-like groups of deputies with colorful names such as the Grim Reapers, the Vikings, the Little Devils and the 3000s. Members of such “deputy gangs” often have distinctive tattoos, have adopted the use of distinctive code words and use gang-like signs to identify themselves.
As suggested by the OIR report, these gang-like groups are anything but benign. The group known as the 3000s, for example, consists of deputies who work on the third floor of the MCJ, the largest facility in Los Angeles County’s jail system and the one with the highest number of use of force incidents.
The LASD moved to fire six members of the 3000s in March 2011 – though not for abusing prisoners. Rather, they were terminated because they attacked two other deputies who worked on another floor of the MCJ, during a December 10, 2010 party at the Montebello banquet hall. A female deputy who tried to break up the fight was punched in the face.
The OIR report made ten recommendations to address staff-on-prisoner violence in the LASD jail system, including: deputies involved in a use of force incident should not be present when the prisoner is interviewed; deputies should be separated after an incident and not share computers to write their reports; investigators should confer with medical staff “to learn the outcome of the evaluation of an inmate’s injuries following a force incident”; and all witnesses or potential witnesses should be identified and interviewed, including civilians and third parties.
On May 7, 2012, Merrick J. Bobb, Special Counsel to the Board of Supervisors, which serves as an independent monitor of the LASD, released a report that analyzed public complaints filed against the Sheriff’s Department in 2010. The report also addressed issues related to the county’s jail system. It noted that “the Sheriff was not well served by major executives and managers who both actively and passively permitted the jails to operate at variance with the Sheriff’s core values, seemingly believing that the abusive culture there was intractable, at best, or not really a problem, at worst.”
The Special Counsel found that while Baca must rely on subordinates, “it should be a delegation of authority, not an abdication of it.” Although generally lauding Baca’s efforts, the report acknowledged problems with guard cliques and use of force incidents.
The Special Counsel noted that the LASD had installed 705 surveillance video cameras at the MCJ and planned to install additional cameras at other facilities. The Sheriff’s Department had also banned the use of heavy metal flashlights by jail deputies, who sometimes used them as blunt weapons in use of force incidents.
Finally, in September 2012, the ACLU-SC and ACLU National Prison Project released another report, titled “Sheriff Baca’s Strike Force: Deputy Violence and Head Injuries of Inmates in LA County Jails.” The report concluded that “there is clear evidence that [LASD] deputies have used head strikes with alarming regularity in the Los Angeles County jails. In many of those incidents the head strikes have caused significant injuries. The manner and frequency of such head strikes strongly suggests an inappropriate use of force by deputies.”
The report, replete with graphic photos of prisoners’ injuries, cited incidents in which deputies had stomped on prisoners’ heads and smashed their faces into walls, and noted that 64 people had made sworn statements concerning incidents between 2009 and 2012 in which deputies had used head strikes. At least 11 prisoners suffered broken facial bones as a result of such assaults, while one was blinded in one eye and at least 14 received facial injuries that required stitches.
Lawsuits Filed Over Jail Violence, Misconduct
ON JULY 25, 2011, THE NINTH CIRCUIT Court of Appeals held that Sheriff Baca was not immune from liability in a racially-motivated gang attack on prisoner Dion Starr five years earlier. Baca could be sued for deliberate indifference to unconstitutional conditions in the jails under his supervision because, the appellate court held, Starr had sufficiently alleged that the Sheriff was made aware of racially violent conditions in LASD jails by virtue of a 2005 report by a special investigator. The report detailed previous incidents involving serious injuries to, and even deaths of, jail detainees.
Starr, who is black, was stabbed 23 times by Hispanic gang members; he claimed that a jail deputy had opened his cell door to allow the attack to occur, and that he was kicked in the face and called racial epithets by other LASD deputies who “subsequently interfered with his ability to obtain medical treatment for his injuries.” [See: PLN, May 2012, p.34].
Sheriff Baca petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was denied on April 30, 2012. The case remains pending on remand to the district court. See: Starr v. County of Los Angeles, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:08-cv-00508-GW-SH.
If Baca was not aware of violent conditions in his jails at the time that Starr was injured, one hopes that more recent events – such as those cited in the ACLU, OIR and Special Counsel reports – have finally drawn his attention. Over the three-year period from 2009 through 2011, moreover, Los Angeles County paid $8.4 million to resolve claims of excessive force and failure to care for prisoners, according to a spokeswoman for County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
On January 18, 2012, the ACLU of Southern California filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Sheriff Baca and other LASD staff, claiming there was a “widespread pattern of violence by deputies against inmates in the county jails.” Such violence, according to the complaint, included jail staff “slamming inmates’ heads into walls, punching them in the face with their fists, kicking them with their boots, and shooting them multiple time with their [T]asers,” resulting in injuries that included “broken legs, fractured eye sockets, shattered jaws, broken teeth, severe head injuries, nerve damage, dis-located joints, collapsed lungs, and wounds requiring dozens of stitches and staples.”
The two named plaintiffs in the suit, Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin, were incarcerated in LASD jails as pretrial detainees when they were severely beaten and threatened by Sheriff’s deputies.
“Sheriff Lee Baca, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, and Chief Dennis Burns are responsible for ensuring that their subordinates do not engage in a pattern of unspeakable acts of violence against inmates,” ACLU-SC legal director Peter Eliasberg said in a press release. “But in the face of a longstanding pattern of deputy abuse they have deliberately and knowingly failed to put in place the basic pieces of an accountability system – sound policies on the use of force, adequate training, careful investigation of force incidents and a rigorous system of discipline. This suit is directed at them because they have allowed deputies to go unpunished, covered up their behavior and for years made no effort to reform this broken system.”
The class-action lawsuit, which raises claims under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, seeks injunctive and declaratory relief for all current and future LASD jail detainees. The case remains pending. See: Rosas v. Baca, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00428-DDP-SH.
The ACLU-SC filed another lawsuit, in Los Angeles Superior Court, against Sheriff Baca and Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley on July 10, 2012, alleging they had condoned a practice in which jail detainees who were attacked by deputies were charged with assault in order to cover up incidents of excessive or unnecessary use of force, and that prosecutors and Sheriff’s officials had suppressed evidence.
The assault charges served to induce prisoners who were beaten by deputies to accept plea bargains in order to avoid additional jail time, and the resulting convictions would “insulate the County and the individual deputies from potential civil liability [and] serve to protect the deputies from disciplinary or criminal proceedings for their abuse,” according to the complaint.
In some cases, deputies who were disciplined or fired for abusing prisoners were not referred to the District Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution; rather, the LASD decided to handle the incidents internally.
“Just because you’re part of the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t mean you can commit battery with impunity,” said Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
In its October 2011 report, the Office of Independent Review recommended that the LASD inform prosecutors about cases involving deputies who used excessive force, and described several incidents in which jail staff were disciplined for inappropriate use of force but not referred for prosecution. In one of those cases, a deputy was fired, but not charged, for using elbow strikes on a detainee who was apparently unconscious and bleeding from the head; the prisoner suffered brain swelling and required surgery.
Further, the ACLU lawsuit claimed that the Sheriff’s Department did not have a system in place to track deputy-on-prisoner violence by deputy names, in violation of a state statute (Penal Code § 832.5) that requires law enforcement agencies to include complaints against police officers and deputies in their personnel files or a database that can be searched by the officer’s name.
“The policies of District Attorney Cooley and Sheriff Baca challenged in this lawsuit have for over a decade now corrupted LA criminal trials into truth-concealing perversions of justice: a system of injustice for all criminal defendants,” said ACLU-SC chief counsel Mark Rosenbaum. “This latest in a seeming unending series of law enforcement scandals on the part of County officials means that there can be no assurance that any of the many thousands of prosecutions during this period resulted in a fair trial.”
“I have spent my adult life defending people accused of crimes,” added defense attorney Jeffrey Douglas, the plaintiff in the suit. “After 30 years of this work, I am not easily shocked, but the choice of our elected officials to disregard flagrantly the statutory and constitutionally required disclosure of accusations of misconduct by sheriff deputies is shocking.”
In September 2012, the ACLU-SC filed an amended complaint that dropped the claims against the LASD, after the Sheriff’s Department submitted a sworn statement that it had implemented a “new system of reporting and tracking complaints against deputies by employee number and name and also had manually reviewed inmate complaints from the past five years to ensure that relevant complaints were added to the database as the law requires. The department also agreed to notify local defense attorneys about the new policy so attorneys whose clients have pending cases know that they can renew their requests and may receive information that had been withheld under the old policy.”
“Because Sheriff Baca and his department have adopted the changes that we urged and are now in compliance with the law, there is no need to proceed with those claims,” said ACLU-SC legal director Peter Eliasberg. “Finally, after many years of obstruction by the sheriff’s department, it decided to comply with the law and ensure that criminal defendants receive the evidence to which they are entitled by state law and the Constitution.”
The claims against the District Attorney’s Office, for preventing or prohibiting disclosure of favorable evidence to criminal defendants, remain pending. See: Douglas v. Cooley, Los Angeles Superior Court (CA), Case No. BS138170.
Other lawsuits against the LASD have been filed by individual prisoners, including Richard Lara. Lara, represented by the law firm of Moreno and Perez, filed a federal civil rights complaint against Los Angeles County and Sheriff Baca on October 3, 2012. He claimed he was a first-time, non-violent offender at the Pitchless Honor Ranch when deputies ordered him to do 500 squats. He tried to comply but collapsed, and crawled for the next two days before he was allowed to see a doctor. He was urinating blood and had to have emergency surgery on his legs due to muscle damage. See: Lara v. County of Los Angeles, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:12-cv-08469-DDP-SH.
On November 26, 2012, the Office of the County Counsel recommended that the Board of Supervisors approve a $175,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed by LASD prisoner Alejandro Alarcon, who alleged he was the victim of excessive force by jail deputies.
Alarcon was arrested on April 20, 2010 for DUI; while being booked into the Inmate Reception Center, he “became involved in a physical altercation” with two deputies. Details of the incident were not described, and no disciplinary action was taken against the deputies involved. The settlement was approved on February 5, 2013. See: Alarcon v. County of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Superior Court (CA), Case No. BC 485 777.
Also, Gabriel Carrillo, the MCJ visitor who was brutally beaten by deputies while handcuffed, filed a federal lawsuit against the county and numerous LASD employees, which remains pending. See: Carrillo v. Zunggeemoge, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:12-cv-02609-DSF-PJW.
Commission Investigates Jail Violence
IN THE WAKE OF THE ACLU AND OIR reports released in September and October 2011, respectively, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to form a commission to study the problem of violence in the LASD jail system. The seven-member Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence (CCJV), which included four former federal judges, met for the first time on November 18, 2011.
Although the Commission lacked subpoena power it heard testimony from dozens of witnesses, including current and former jail prisoners, current and former Sheriff’s Department employees, jail monitors, experts, and Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Baca, who testified before the Commissioners on July 27, 2012, urged them to seek solutions to current problems in the jails rather than examine prior deficiencies.
“We know we screwed up in the past,” the Sheriff stated. “I’m a guy that says let’s go forward…. I just need this com-mission to understand the limits of digging up dirt that doesn’t have any water going into it.”
Baca blamed subordinates who failed to tell him about abusive deputies and rising levels of violence in the county’s jails – even though, as Sheriff, it was his responsibility to oversee and manage the jail system. “I’m one person and I’ve got a department that’s full of opportunities for mistakes,” he said.
Likewise, Tanaka testified that he was not informed about problems involving deputy-on-prisoner violence in the jail system, although he acknowledged that he should have been more diligent.
However, retired LASD Commander Robert Olmsted informed the Commission that he had twice attempted to tell Sheriff Baca about problems related to excessive force and deputy gangs in county jail facilities, but was ignored.
“It seems to me everybody buried their head in the sand in regard to this issue,” observed Commissioner Dickran M. Tevrizian, Jr. “It’s very hard for a rational person to understand this.”
The CCJV issued its final, 205-page report on September 28, 2012, which was forceful in its criticism of the LASD and Sheriff Baca’s inadequate oversight of the county’s jail system. The report noted that “[t]here has been a persistent pattern of unreasonable force in the Los Angeles County jails that dates back many years,” and that “the problem of excessive and unnecessary force in the Los Angeles County jails was the result of many factors, beginning most fundamentally with a failure of leadership in the Department.”
The Commission also found that Sheriff Baca “did not pay enough attention to the jails until external events forced him to do so,” and that Undersheriff Tanaka had “engaged in conduct that undermined supervision of aggressive deputies and promoted an environment of lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct.”
While the CCJV noted that use of force incidents had dropped significantly after Baca finally took steps to rein in deputy-on-prisoner violence, it observed that “These statistics reinforce the testimony of current and former Department personnel, inmates, jail chaplains and monitors that much of the force used by deputies prior to the formation of the [Commander Management Task Force] and over a series of years was unnecessary, excessive, and in violation of the Department’s policies.”
The CCJV further wrote that although “LASD personnel have used force against inmates when the force was disproportionate to the threat posed or there was no threat at all,” very few deputies who engaged in inappropriate uses of force were disciplined. “During the period from 2006 through 2011, only 36 out of a total of 5,630 use of force incidents in LASD jail facilities were deemed to be unreasonable” and in violation of policy (original emphasis).
The Commission’s final report recommended 63 specific reforms in the areas of use of force, management, culture, personnel, discipline and oversight in the LASD jail system.
Most importantly, the CCJV recommended that existing civilian oversight agencies be combined into an independent inspector general’s office that would have authority to conduct investigations into the LASD; that the Sheriff’s Department hire an Assistant Sheriff specifically designated to oversee the county’s jail system; and that the LASD create a separate career track for deputies employed in jail positions, rather than moving them to patrol positions after an initial training period in the jails.
Other reforms included revamping the LASD’s use of force policy based on an objectively reasonable standard for use of force; providing staff training on the new use of force policy and enhanced ethics training; tracking prisoner grievances related to use of force incidents; ensuring the Sheriff is personally engaged in jail oversight; removing the Under-sheriff from jail custody operations; discouraging staff participation in “destructive cliques” (i.e., gang-like groups); increasing the ratio of supervisors to deputies; and revising the disciplinary system for LASD employees.
Additionally, the Commission noted that “[v]irtually everyone we spoke to during our investigation … expressed the view that MCJ should be ‘torn down,’” calling the Men’s Central Jail “an antiquated, dungeon-like facility that exacerbates force problems in the jails, makes supervision challenging, and increases the likelihood that some deputies will be tempted to engage in aggressive behavior and use force as a first response rather than a last option.”
However, the CCJV made no recommendations with respect to the MCJ, as demolishing the jail and constructing a new facility would “not solve the longstanding problems of excessive force” in the Sheriff’s Department absent other systemic changes.
A report by corrections expert James Austin, commissioned by the LASD and the ACLU-SC and released in April 2012, had concluded that the MCJ could be closed by the end of 2013 by “safely releasing 3,000 low-risk, non-violent, pre-trial and sentenced inmates into community-based supervision and education programs … and by increasing the capacity of the county-wide jail system by 2,000 through a repurposing of existing facilities,” according to an ACLU press release.
Sheriff Baca embraced the Commission’s recommended reforms on October 3, 2012, stating, “I couldn’t have written them better myself.” He also said that he was committed to closing the old section of the MCJ, based on the Austin report.
However, he did not indicate that he would discipline jail staff who had failed to inform him about problems with brutality and violence, nor did he state that he had lost faith in Undersheriff Paul Tanaka – even though Tanaka was criticized for fostering a culture of abuse in the LASD jail system. Baca indicated that Tanaka would no longer have control over jail operations but would continue over administrative services.
“I do have some deputies who have done some terrible things,” Sheriff Baca acknowledged. But even that admission came with a caveat: “You can’t judge the whole by the few,” he said. He further stated that despite criticism regarding his leadership as Sheriff and his failure to adequately oversee the county’s jail system, he had no intention of resigning.
Slow to Come, Reforms Finally Arrive
WHILE REFORMS IN THE LASD HAVE BEEN long in coming, events following the release of the CCJV report indicate that some meaningful changes are being made – even if they represent a slow start after decades of inaction.
Beginning in February 2012, as part of a pilot program, deputies at the MCJ and Twin Towers jail started wearing video cameras on their uniforms, which was one of the reforms recommended in the CCJV report. Under the pilot program, 30 deputies were assigned to wear the cameras for six months. “The camera goes on the deputy’s chest, and it records conversations and video of anything that’s in front of them,” said LASD Commander Eric Parra.
“I do think it’s a very good step but the violence in the jails is not a simple problem that can be fixed by doing just one thing, and that’s it,” stated ACLU-SC legal director Peter Eliasberg. “You also have to have good training, good supervision, and so on.”
Additionally, there is some indication that the Sheriff’s Department is taking reports of staff misconduct more seriously, and investigating and disciplining even high-level LASD employees.
In August 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that two Sheriff’s deputies, Michael Rathbun and James Sexton, had learned from a prisoner informant that another deputy was cooperating with a white supremacist gang member at the MCJ. They relayed this information to their boss, LASD Lt. Greg Thompson, who headed the jail system’s intelligence unit. Thompson then allegedly told the deputy suspected of involvement with the gang member of the allegations against him, and not only provided him with the names of his accusers, Rathbun and Sexton, but also identified the informant.
As a result, Lt. Thompson became the subject of an internal investigation and was removed from the intelligence unit. “This is way outside the norm of how this should have been handled,” stated Thomas Parker, a former FBI agent who was in charge of the agency’s Los Angeles field office. “It smacks of corruption.”
Thompson was also implicated in the LASD’s decision to hide prisoner Anthony Brown, the FBI informant, from federal officials by transferring him to other jails under different names. Thompson, who allegedly gave the order to move Brown, was placed on leave in November 2012. He is also reportedly under investigation for whether he had his son, who works as an LASD deputy, confront another deputy about his grand jury testimony.
On December 13, 2012, the Sheriff’s Department arrested deputy Jermaine Jackson, 35, who worked in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility; he was charged with four felony counts of assault and two misdemeanor counts of falsifying reports. Jackson is accused of attacking prisoners on two occasions and then filing false reports to cover up his actions.
LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore said that Jackson’s arrest – more than three years after one of the assaults he is accused of committing – was an indication that Sheriff Baca was “cleaning house.”
Further, in January 2013, two Sheriff’s captains, Daniel Cruz and Bernice Abram, retired while under internal investigations. Cruz, the former head of the MCJ from 2008 to 2010, had been accused of shielding aggressive deputies from investigation and joking at one point not to hit prisoners in the face because it would leave bruises. Abram was suspected of providing information to a drug dealer after the FBI said it heard her voice on a wiretap. Neither were criminally charged. Cruz had been placed on leave in November 2011 after reports of abuse at the MCJ began to mount.
“The Sheriff’s Department conducted its own internal affairs investigations and one of them was concluded, and I can’t say what the findings were, but what I can tell you is that appropriate action was taken and there’s another one that’s still ongoing,” said Whitmore.
According to February 2013 news reports, another LASD employee is currently under investigation for abusing a prisoner: Sheriff Baca’s nephew, Justin Bravo. Bravo, 32, was hired in 2007 under a program called “Friends of the Sheriff” despite a criminal record that included a fight with police, theft, and arrests for suspicion of burglary and DUI. According to OIR attorney Michael J. Gennaco, “there is no way he should have been hired.” Bravo was suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.
Also in February 2013, the LASD announced that it would fire seven deputies who were members of a clique – e.g., gang – who had participated in “inappropriate behavior.” The Sheriff’s Department did not identify the deputies nor the behavior that led to their terminations. Members of the deputy gang, known as the “Jump Out Boys,” were not employed as guards in the county’s jail system; rather, they worked as patrol officers in a gang enforcement unit called Operation Safe Streets.
On December 4, 2012, the Board of Supervisors received a status report from Sheriff Baca on the recommendations made by the CCJV. The LASD indicated that a number of the reforms were “in progress” and that some had been completed – the latter included analyzing prisoner grievances regarding use of force incidents, ensuring that the sheriff is “personally engaged” in jail oversight, enhancing ethics training and emphasizing force prevention policy during training, implementing a new use of force policy and discouraging staff participation in gang-like groups.
Of the CCJV’s 63 recommendations, Sheriff’s officials indicated that 21 had been completed, 29 were still in progress and 13 required funding estimated at $60.8 million – mostly related to hiring new staff and additional staff training. Baca stated to the Board that he had “personally reflected on [his] shortcomings in managing Custody Division,” and had taken action to remedy problems in the jail system. He also reiterated that “in several instances my senior management failed to keep me informed, or did not perform to my expectations.”
In January 2013, Baca issued a memo stating that he would no longer accept campaign donations from LASD employees, and that other Sheriff’s Department officials who held elected office, including Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, would not be allowed to make employment decisions regarding staff members who had contributed to their political campaigns.
“Nothing less than the public’s trust is at stake,” Baca wrote, although such a common sense policy to address political patronage and potential conflicts of interest had not previously been implemented during his tenure as Sheriff. From 1999 to 2011, Baca reportedly received at least $97,850 in campaign contributions from LASD employees. Tanaka received approximately $108,311 in donations from Sheriff’s Department staff members from 1998 to 2011. The policy change concerning campaign contributions was one of the reforms recommended in the CCJV report.
And on February 7, 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that Baca had notified the Board of Supervisors that he intended to hire Terri McDonald as the LASD’s Assistant Sheriff to oversee jail operations. McDonald has 24 years of experience in corrections and currently serves as Undersecretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She will report directly to Sheriff Baca.
Thus, apparently all it takes to effect change in the nation’s largest jail system are multiple reports by watchdog organizations, multiple lawsuits, an FBI investigation, the appointment of a special commission, extensive media attention and public pressure.
In February 2013, Baca received the Sheriff of the Year award by the National Sheriffs’ Association. “You gotta be kidding,” said Eliasberg with the ACLU-SC. “The years of malfeasance in the jails and the blatant failure of the sheriff to address the problems make his winning this award mind-boggling.”
Ultimately, Los Angeles residents will have to decide what direction the LASD will take regarding the county’s jail system during the next election for sheriff. During his testimony before the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, Baca was asked, “If you’re to blame, how do we hold you accountable?”
The Sheriff replied, “Don’t elect me!” Voters should take note.
(This article first appeared in Prison Legal News and is used here by permission)
Sources: Los Angeles Times, www.witnessla.com, Associated Press, www.laoir.com, https://ccjv.lacounty.gov/, LA Weekly, www.nbclosangeles.com, www.kcet.org, New York Times, www.correctionsone.com, www.wsws.org, Citizens for Prison Reform, www.goldsea.com, www.scpr.org, http://bos.lacounty.gov, www.corspecops.com, https://losangeles.cbslocal.com/, www.aclu.org, www.aclu-sc.org, www.news.yahoo.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.wavenewspapers.com, www.dailybreeze.com, www.contracostatimes.com, https://www.nbcnews.com/us-news, www.citywatchla.com, Wall Street Journal, https://lasd.org/
Published Apr 30, 2013 | Last Updated Oct 24, 2021 at 10:37 am