The Latest | Southern California breaking news and trends
Crime & Justice

Investigators find 'deputy-versus-inmate culture,' deep-seated problems in LA's county jails

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC

Listen to

Download this 0.0MB

L.A. County's Citizens Commission on Jail Violence heard further evidence of problems in jail leadership on Friday, as they prepare a report that's expected to recommend massive changes to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. 

The Sheriff's Department runs L.A.'s county jails, along with providing patrol services to unincorporated areas of the county and contract cities.

The investigators — all local attorneys, working pro bono for the commission — conducted hundreds of interviews and read thousands of documents for the report. They said they discovered issues with training, conduct, discipline, culture and management of deputies in the jails, particularly Men's Central Jail in downtown L.A. 

Combined, those factors created an atmosphere where unneccessary violence was tolerated and sometimes even encouraged as a means of establishing deputy authority and control over inmates, investigators testified.

Friday's testimony centered around six key areas: 

(The full report of the investigators)

1. Use of Force

Jail deputies, Attorney Maurice Suh said, "used force when disproportionate to the threat posed or when there was no threat at all." Some of these instances "stand outside policy and outside common sense," he testified. Use-of-force has gone down in the deparment: from 84 incident per month between 2006 and 2010, to 38 per month as of the first half of 2012. He said that's a direct result of public attention to the issue, as well as internal changes at the deparmtment.

However, Suh added, the majority of those instances involve "significant" use-of-force, and the majority are not related to an inmate attacking a deputy or another inmate. "It's likely that they involve resisting inmates," he said — meaning force is still being used as a tool, not a last resort. 

2. Management

Attorney David Schindler concluded Sheriff Lee Baca was effectively "not involved in management of the jails," ceding most control to Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Tanaka, among others, then insulated Baca from bad news out of the jail system.

Tanaka, Schindler testified, "failed to uphold the values of the department" by encouraging deputies to operate in the "gray" areas between necessary and unneccessary use-of-force on inmates and speaking poorly of internal affairs investigators. To this day, Schindler said, there's "no evidence that senior management has been disciplined" for these lapses.  

3. Training

Attorney Tamirlin Godley testified that training, especially when it comes to mental health, remains an issue. First of all, she said, the department still trains deputies to be patrol officers, not jailers. Yet many deputies start their careers with a 5-7 year stint in the jail system. Deputies, she said, are given the impression that "custody is not the real work of the department, patrol is," making them ill-prepared for their custody assignments.

Furthermore, she said, jail assignments are often used as punishment for "problem" patrol officers, further de-valuing the work and exposing new deputies to bad habits. When it comes to mid-level managers, patrol attracts the best candidates. "When the superstars are gone, custody gets what's left," she said.

Godley said the Academy should change their approach, devoting more time to custody and more time to how to deal with those suffering from mental health issues. Mental health training currently claims two hours in an 18-week academy. 

4. Discipline

There were further concerns that when deputies break policies, they're not held accountable. Bert Deixler testified the small number of unreasonable force findings that the department has had in its history casts doubt on the integrity of the review process.

Furthermore, he said, there are only slight penalties for deputies who're found to have lied to superiors or investigators looking into use-of-force incidents. "Management has undermined discipline in the department," he said. 

5. Oversight

Attorney Robert Swerdlow praised the watchdogs that currently monitor the department, including the Office of Independent Review. However, he said, there are overlaps and gaps in what these bodies cover, leaving cracks where serious misconduct can slide through. Also, "none of the watchdogs monitors conditions in the jails on a day to day basis," he said. The ACLU has fulfilled that function, but Swerdlow recommended a "more permanent jail monitor," as well as consolidating different oversight bodies into one.

6. Culture

Attorney Douglas Axelrod concluded that use of excessive force in the jails was product of a "troubling culture" in the jails. Axelrod pointed to a "deputy-versus-inmate culture" where "force is viewed as a way to control the population and assert power."

Axelrod said "deputy cliques" were tolerated in the jails, leading to group dynamics and peer pressure.

"Deputies begin their careers at Men's Central as courteous," he said, but some shift quickly to an attitude of disrespect toward those incarcerated there. 

Final report: Sept. 28

The commission's general council, Richard Drooyan, said he had seriously considered whether the Sheriff's Department should even be in charge of jails at all, considering their deep-seated issues.

Instead, Drooyan said, the commission should consider recommendations that would vastly change the way the department is run and organized when they issue their final report on Sept. 28. 

Many of those who spoke emphasized that the majority of sheriff's deputies are professionals who do good work—and the commission pointed out, too, that inmate-on-inmate violence in the jails is much more common than violence between deputies and inmates. 

The panel’s report echoed testimony the commission has heard from current and former sheriff’s department officers.  A sheriff’s department spokesman said Baca disagrees with many of the panel’s findings, and said the department will soon issue its own report on the jails. Baca admitted to oversight problems in the jails when he testified before the commission in July. He said he was making changes, which included the installation of hundreds of surveillance cameras.