Jail violence experts say that Sheriff Lee Baca should relinquish control of jails

Grant Slater/KPCC

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011. Two national jail experts have told Citizens Commission on Jail Violence that someone other than the sheriff should run Los Angeles County lockups.

Two national jail experts told the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence Friday that someone other than the sheriff should run Los Angeles County lockups.

“Taking nothing away from Sheriff Baca’s integrity… there should be a separate detention services administration,” said Marty Horn, former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections and a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It should be independent of the Sheriff’s office.”

Horn said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca inevitably pays more attention to street patrols that are more visible to the public than to what happens inside his jails.

“The sheriff’s bread and butter by the very nature of an elected sheriff’s office – and this is true throughout the country – is on the road patrol,” Horn said.

Michael Jacobson, president of the Vera Institute of Justice who also once ran New York jails, agreed. He said a separate corrections department in N.Y.C. provides better training and supervision. In L.A., sheriff’s deputies (often) grudgingly serve their first few years as guards inside jails before hitting the streets.

Jacobson and Horn testified a week after the sheriff and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka said they had not been aware of the extent of problems with use of force at the jails.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors created the panel after the F.B.I. launched an investigation into allegations of widespread abuse of inmates. The A.C.L.U. has collected more than 100 declarations from inmates who say deputies beat them up.

In addition, reports from the Office of Independent Review and Special Counsel Merrick Bobb dating as far back as 20 years indicated increases in use of force by Sheriff’s deputies at Men’s Central Jail in particular.

The head of the labor union that represents deputies testified that reports of abuse are exaggerated.

“I’m not saying there are not bad deputies, but as a whole they are doing a fabulous job,” said Floyd Hayhurst, president of the Association for Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs.

Hayhurst suggested the new scrutiny of the jails and Baca’s reform efforts — including his town hall meetings with inmates — have “empowered inmates.” He claimed inmates are less inclined lately to follow deputy’s instructions.

“At some point, they will riot,” Hayhurst warned. He said deputy morale at the jails "is probably at an all-time low."

The union has resisted reforms at the jails, initially opposing a new rotation system for deputies in addition to other changes. A spokeswoman for the commission complained union leaders have urged members to contact union lawyers before speaking with the panel’s investigators.

Another jail expert testified that the code of silence among sheriff’s deputies at the jail remains a serious problem.

“It is deeply embedded,” said Jeffrey Schwartz of the criminal justice research and training firm LETRA. He worked with the sheriff to reduce use of force and improve training at Men's Central Jail until he concluded he was not making progress.

“I sent an email to the sheriff saying, ‘We’re having serious trouble with this project. I really need to speak with you rather than one of your subordinates.’”

Schwartz said he never got an answer from Baca.

“But one of the subordinates called," he went on. "And said ‘Why are you sending negative stuff to the sheriff?’”

The Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence is expected to issue a report with recommendations for reform later this year. Baca has said he already has implemented a series of reforms that has reduced use of force at the jails.

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