After Angelenos rioted in 1992 following the acquittals of the LAPD officers involved in the Rodney King beating, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The law allows the US Department of Justice to file lawsuits against local law enforcement agencies for a "pattern or practice" of civil rights violations and force them to change through consent decrees overseen by a federal judge.
When the DOJ opened a "pattern and practice" investigation into Los Angeles County lockups earlier this month, jail watchdogs cheered.
"On their own, the Sheriff’s Department is not going to rehabilitate itself," said Mary Sutton of Critical Resistance. "We need to get the thugs out of the LA county jail system."
That’s strong language. But some longtime allies of Sheriff Lee Baca, who oversees the jails, also say federal intervention is necessary.
"When you realize the feds are looking over your shoulder, it causes you to take a look in your own house," said the Rev. Leonard B. Jackson, who calls the sheriff a "good friend."
For more than a year, the FBI has been conducting a criminal investigation into allegations that deputies beat up inmates.
The agency launched the probe after hearing dozens of stories from former inmates like Gordon Grbavac, who alleges in an ACLU lawsuit that deputies assaulted him in the Twin Towers jail in downtown L.A.
"They handcuffed me. They slammed my head into a glass wall over a half a dozen times," said Grbavac, 46, a father of four and construction company owner from Baldwin Park. He said the 2011 attack was unprovoked.
In a September 5 letter, the DOJ said it was opening a broader civil rights investigation focusing on "whether LASD deputies engage in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force."
The letter said the department would also examine mental health care inside the jails, an issue federal investigators have been monitoring as part of a Memorandum of Understand for more than a decade.
"Significant problems remain," Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels said in the letter. "A growing number of prisoners with serious mental illness continue to be housed in obsolete and dilapidated conditions at Men’s Central Jail, women are routinely confined in 'lock down' status due to insufficient staffing, and capacity for inpatient mental health care remain insufficient."
The letter touched off a debate among county officials. While he acknowledged continuing problems inside the jails, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky bristled at the thought of a federal judge overseeing jail operations as part of a consent decree.
"You never want somebody who has dictatorial power like a federal judge does to make decisions for you if you can avoid it," he said. Yaroslavsky noted use of force against inmates by deputies is down amid greater scrutiny, including more cameras inside the jails.
Federal intervention in the state prison system has forced it to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce overcrowding and improve health care. Some county officials worry the same will happen at the jails.
"Its so expensive because you can’t argue," Supervisor Don Knabe said of federal judicial oversight. "You have no choice but to spend the money."
But even some in county government say a consent decree may be what’s needed at the troubled jails, which house nearly 20,000 inmates.
"“It took a consent decree to straighten out many of the problems in the Los Angeles police department," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
The consent degree at the LAPD was a wake up call, said Gerry Chaleff, president of the police commission when the federal government stepped in.
"It required people to face what was happening in the police department," said Chaleff, who now serves as a special assistant to the chief and advises other cities faced with federal intervention. "It also required the city council to give us funding to build the early warning computer system."
That $40 million system is designed to warn supervisors when an officer may be engaging in misconduct. It keeps a wide range of data on officers – from the number of citizen complaints against them to how often they use force.
Last month, a judge in New York placed the NYPD under federal monitoring after concluding that its long-standing stop-and-frisk policy amounted to racial profiling. The ruling came after US Attorney General Eric Holder sued the department seeking a consent decree.
Sheriff Baca, who once lashed out at the federal government’s criminal investigation of his jails, downplayed the importance of the broader civil rights inquiry.
"They’re not coming in with a heavy hand," he told KPCC. "What they want to do is come in and see if things are at their best possible level."
Baca, 71, faces re-election next year. A citizen’s commission on jail violence has faulted the sheriff for poor supervision of the jails. But it also implicated his chief rival – former undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
"A federal investigation is never a good thing," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. He said a consent decree condemning a pattern of civil rights violations might hurt Baca more than criminal indictments of a few "bad apples."
"I think it depends what the findings are in the investigation of the department," said Sonenshein. "Do they implicate his supervision as sheriff? That could be significantly damaging."
Federal officials have indicated they expect to complete their investigation by the end of the year.