Over the past several weeks, the image of the LA County Sheriff’s Department has been taking a pounding in the eyes of the public.
First, a special counsel for the county found that undertrained deputies shot twice as many unarmed people last year than the previous year, most of whom were Latino or African-American males between the ages of 18 and 25.
Next, the ACLU reported in sometimes sickening detail on shocking acts of sadistic brutality committed against inmates over the past several years by deputies supposedly guarding the county’s jail system. So emboldened were some of these deputies to commit wanton acts of violence, that two deputies allegedly beat, punched, kicked and then Tasered a compliant inmate right in front of an ACLU jail monitor who was interviewing another inmate at the time.
And finally, the Office of Independent Review, charged with analyzing cases involving use of force by the Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies around the county, investigated 30 separate acts of brutality allegedly committed by deputy guards against ostensibly defenseless — and, let’s not forget, still innocent — inmates.
The lack of oversight in these facilities suggests that whoever is in charge isn’t really paying much attention to what’s going on. And that apparently has been the case in all of these instances; Sheriff Lee Baca dismissed most of these claims, saying that the shooting figures are overstated and skewed, that he had no knowledge of such occurrences of bloody brutality in the jails and that most of the stories of excessive violence involving deputies have been exaggerated.
Since that time, the ACLU has called for celebrity-friendly Baca, the man who made time in jail comfortable for the likes of Mel Gibson, Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan, to resign, an idea which he has rejected. And why should he quit? Baca, like his predecessor, Sherman Block, and all other sheriffs before him, is an elected official, one who has three years left in his fourth four-year term. After being elected by often ill-informed and uncaring voters, among those who bother to vote, no one can tell Baca what to do, not even members of the county Board of Supervisors, several, if not all of whom must have known about these abuses of power.
As federal investigators started combing county jails in search of evidence against rogue deputies, the supervisors finally stepped up, calling for the formation of a special commission — one headed by retired US District Judge Dickran Tevrizian of Pasadena — to investigate allegations of brutality and corruption in the county jail system and the Sheriff’s Department, respectively.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should, because this is not the first time the Sheriff’s Department has been accused of gross misconduct in the treatment of prisoners and often unnecessarily using excessive and deadly force on suspects in predominantly minority neighborhoods.
In December 1991, the Board of Supervisors appointed former LA County Superior Court Judge James G. Kolts of Altadena to head a blue-ribbon commission “to 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 final analysis, the Kolts Commission’s findings nearly 20 years ago were no less disturbing 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 an incident of racially charged police brutality involving the LAPD and Altadena’s Rodney King sparked the worst urban rioting in American history.
The Kolts Commission report was written around the same time the Christopher Commission was making its findings public regarding LAPD’s brutality in beating and Tasering King on March 3, 1991, and “like the LAPD, 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,” states Kolts.
It appears history is repeating itself. Given the urgency for change following the riots and the absolute resistance to those calls to improve, which in turn has metastasized into what we have occurring today in county lock-ups, the findings of a dozen similarly disposed commissions and judges would likely make no difference to the way sheriff’s deputies behave, regardless of who is overseeing the department. As long as sheriff is an elected position, one in which the head of the largest paramilitary force in the country answers to no one, and the head of that department chooses to turn a blind eye toward allegations of abuse, as Baca has done, there can be no hope of meaningful change.