'Failure of leadership'
Baca says he will implement commission’s recommendations on deputy violence
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he would adopt all the recommendations issued by a blue-ribbon panel which determined that the abuse of inmates at the hands of deputies working as guards in LA County jails was the result of Baca’s “failure of leadership.”
Among the 77 recommendations for improvement — which, if enacted, could bring sweeping reforms to the Sheriff’s Department — one calls for the establishment of an inspector general, who would report to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Another recommendation calls for the hiring of a new head of custody, a person with experience managing large jail facilities. That person would answer directly to the sheriff.
“I couldn’t have written them better myself,” Baca said of the recommendations contained in the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence’s report. “We will be a stronger and safer jail,” he said at a press conference Wednesday, the Los Angele Times reported.
After years of seeing no action taken on complaints regarding the abuse of county jail inmates, the ACLU of Southern California praised the sheriff for accepting the recommendations, but remained skeptical.
“We’re pleased that Sheriff Baca has accepted and agreed to implement the recommendations from the citizens’ commission,” ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg said in a prepared statement. “We at the ACLU of Southern California have been making many of the same recommendations for years. We look forward to working with him on the swift implementation of these much-needed reforms.”
The attention of the commission — chaired by former federal Judge Lourdes G. Baird and including fellow retired US District judges Robert C. Bonner of Pasadena, Dickran Tevrizian, also a local resident, and Carlos Moreno, who served as a US District judge before becoming a state Supreme Court associate justice — focused in part on past failures at reform of a system well-known for its brutality and unaccountability.
Along with criticizing Baca’s failure to lead, the report also brings attention to the role of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. The Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence final report states that “not only did [Tanaka] fail to identify and correct problems, but he exacerbated them … Over the course of several years, the undersheriff encouraged deputies to push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities and created an environment that discouraged accountability for misconduct.”
But that wasn’t all. “Undersheriff Tanaka specifically derailed efforts to address excessive force in MCJ [Men’s Central Jail] when he vetoed a job rotation plan in 2006,” the report states. “After the plan was announced, he held a meeting with deputies without the knowledge or presence of supervisors, and in a subsequent meeting berated supervisors who attempted to hold deputies accountable for their conduct. These actions undermined the authority of supervisors, resulted in a breakdown in the chain of command, and perpetuated an environment of aggressive deputy conduct. Ultimately, this set the stage for a sharp increase in the number of force incidents later in 2006 and for the reemergence of use of force problems later on.”
Controlling deputy-related violence has been a major issue in Los Angeles County over the past two decades. In December 1991, when the Sheriff’s Department was headed by Sherman Block, the Board of Supervisors appointed former LA County Superior Court Judge James G. Kolts of Altadena to head a blue-ribbon commission of that time, one that would “review the policies, practices and procedures of the Sheriff's Department, including recruitment, training, job performance and evaluation, record keeping and management practices as they relate to allegations of excessive force, the community sensitivity of deputies and the department’s citizen complaint procedure,” according to the commission’s initial charge.
In the end, the Kolts Commission’s findings nearly 20 years ago were no less shocking than what the ACLU and others are reporting today. “My staff and I found deeply disturbing evidence of excessive force and lax discipline,” Kolts wrote. “The Sherriff’s Department has not been able to solve its problems of excessive force in the past and has not reformed itself with adequate thoroughness and speed.” In fact, “this report is a somber and sobering one in terms of the large number of brutal incidents that have been and still are occurring,” states the final document, issued in July 1992, less than three months after the LA Riots. “Like the LAPD,” Kolts wrote, “the LASD has too many officers who have resorted to unnecessary and excessive force. The department has not done an adequate job of disciplining them.”
The latest commission headed by Judge Baird, which also included as members civil rights leader Rev. Cecil Murray as vice chair, Alexander Busansky, president of the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, came up with 63 findings and 77 recommendations for improvement.
Noting Baca’s testimony to the commission, in which he said he was accountable to voters who could kick him out of office if they are dissatisfied, the commission wrote that “accountability is an absolute necessity” and the “the best system” would be for Baca to hire “an experienced corrections expert to be accountable directly and singularly to him for running the jails while he is, in turn, accountable to the voters.”
“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 latest panel found. “Simply stated, the sheriff did not pay enough attention to the jails until external events forced him to do so. Further, his senior leaders failed to monitor conditions in the jails and elevate use-of-force issues so that they received the necessary attention by the sheriff, and the undersheriff engaged in conduct that undermined supervision of aggressive deputies and promoted an environment of lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct.”
In a prepared statement, Supervisor Michael Antonovich praised the commission and called on Baca, first elected in 1998 and currently in the middle of his fourth elected term in office, to work with the board in implementing the commission’s recommendations.
“This respected commission of highly esteemed jurists and community leaders has conducted an extensive review and investigation which has resulted in sound and constructive recommendations,” Antonovich stated. “While Sheriff Baca deserves credit for adopting some reforms, these comprehensive recommendations will ensure the accountability and oversight necessary to restore the public’s trust in the jail system. The sheriff should take these recommendations very seriously and implement them with the oversight and support of the Board of Supervisors.”
Released last Friday, the report is broken down into six categories covering eight jail facilities: use of force; management; culture; personnel; discipline; and oversight. More than 100 witnesses were interviewed by the commission during the past year.
Among the report’s recommended reforms are proposals to improve the handling of mentally ill inmates, which have not been implemented despite outcry by the ACLU and the US Department of Justice. Both agencies have “similarly expressed concerns regarding the treatment of mentally ill inmates,” the report states.
The commission found that: The majority of the incidents in which deputies used force in 2011 were not in response to inmate assaults; the department imposed discipline for unreasonable force violations in use of force situations in less than 1 percent of incidents from 2006 to 2011; and that deputies have enabled inmates to use force against other inmates. The report also found that the department’s statistics on use-of-force incidents are not reliable and called for a revamp of the department’s disciplinary system.
The commission was formed by the supervisors after Baca claimed in a series stories appearing in July in the Los Angeles Times that he was unaware of problems in the jail after an ACLU report revealed rampant violence being committed against mostly men in custody.
In response to that report, Pasadena resident and former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and All Saints Church’s Rev. Ed Bacon co-signed a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, along with 23 others — including civil rights attorneys, public defenders and the Rev. James Lawson, a confidante of Martin Luther King, Jr. — calling for the FBI to investigate allegations of deputy-sanctioned physical and sexual brutality in county jails made by the ACLU.
In that report, a witness for the ACLU likened Los Angeles County jails to Nazi concentration camps, claiming inmates are routinely beaten, Tasered and kicked by merciless deputies.
Last month the Office of Independent Review (OIR) released a report detailing arrests within the department. According to that report, 60 county Sheriff’s Department employees — 40 of them sworn officers — were fired in 2011 for crimes ranging from unlawful sexual conduct with an inmate to insurance fraud. Fourteen of those deputies were charged with crimes. However, the report did not mention any instances last year in which a deputy was arrested for brutalizing a civilian or an inmate while on duty. Nor were there any arrests of deputies working in the jails.
The commissions report called for the Office of Independent Review, the county’s Special Counsel and an ombudsman be merged into a new Office of Inspector General, which would be responsible for oversight of the department.
“The Office of Independent Review scrutinizes major force incidents on a micro level, but exercises little oversight over unit level investigations and lacks a mandate to oversee macro policy issues,” the report states. “There is also a gap between the policy level review by Special Counsel and the case review by OIR with respect to the review and identification of trends, tactical issues, and overlapping problems. And the ombudsman, despite serving as the clearinghouse for public complaints, does not regularly review the totality of inmate complaints to identify systemic patterns and problems or evaluate the department’s progress in resolving these issues.”
Regarding Baca’s promises to change, the ACLU will be making sure he follows through.
“We intend to hold Sheriff Baca to his word to make sure he implements these vital recommendations for the benefit of inmates, their families and the community as a whole, as well as the many committed and dedicated sheriff’s department personnel whose reputations have unfortunately been tarnished by the misdeeds of their colleagues,” Eliasberg stated.