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Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca in 2010.
A blue-ribbon panel of investigators, acting at the behest of the newly-formed Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, has listened to months of testimony by sheriff’s supervisors about the use of excessive force towards inmates in county jails.
Now they’re pointing the finger at the highest level: Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
According to their report, Baca failed to adequately monitor deputies’ abuse of inmates. Tanaka, they say, encouraged a “disturbing mindset” that valued aggressive force over other disciplinary methods. The commission met Friday to discuss the findings, and will issue their recommendations on September 28th.
The commission's executive director, Miriam Aroni Krinsky, said that their investigatory teams pored over 30,000 pages of documents and interviewed over 150 witnesses, many of whom were current or former members of the sheriff's department.
"The conclusions they formed based on that wealth of information and the consistent messages and themes that they heard was that there has been a problem over time, in terms of lack of awareness by the sheriff of problems that are a foot, of breakdowns in communication and a failure to keep him fully apprised of what's been going on in the jails," she said.
According to Krinsky, they've seen Baca become more involved in recent months as reports of inmate abuse surfaced and media picked them up, and his engagement is a positive. "We've seen force go down, but that again has led us to conclude ... that what that reflects is that when the sheriff does pay attention and engages, there's an ability to reduce force, which calls into question the reasonableness of force that was used in prior years," she said.
Steve Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, told AirTalk that "there's more to this story," and that the commission's allegations are not true. He could not stay on the show to explain due to a sudden matter he needed to address.
The American Liberties Union released a statement regarding Friday's gathering:
"Over the past two years, we've spoken with hundreds of inmates, as well as prisoner chaplains and other civilians, who all tell eerily similar accounts of deputy on inmate violence. Today they can feel vindicated in their courage to step forward and tell the truth. We look forward to the commission's full report and to hearing its recommendation."
Peter, an ACLU legal director, called AirTalk to stress the importance of holding the two officials accountable. He added that the ACLU had been issuing four years of reports, overlooked and denied by Baca.
"Undersheriff Tanaka testified in front of the jail commission that he never once, in the 2.5 years that he was the assistant sheriff over the custody division, never once looked at use of force statistics in the jails. ... Why was Sheriff Baca trusting him?" he asked. "You would think that you would ask a question when there are all these reports of violence in the jails and you say that you're trusting your command staff – well why didn't he say to his command staff: 'What are you doing? What investigation are you doing that you're asking me to rely on what you're telling me, that there's not a problem in the jails?'"
According to KPCC reporter Frank Stoltze, the late-September recommendations can be used to put political pressure on Baca and incite reform. He said that the commission could also look at possibly taking the jails out of the sheriff's hands and creating a separate corrections department, as well as suggest a separate track for deputies who serve their career in the jails.
Steve Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department
Miriam Aroni Krinsky, executive director of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence
Frank Stoltze KPCC reporter