Report: New LA County jail cameras critical to investigating inmate abuse

Michael Gennaco heads L.A. County's Office of Independent Review.
Michael Gennaco heads L.A. County's Office of Independent Review.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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A body that monitors the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department released a report Thursday finding the department has made progress in how it handles discipline and inmate abuse allegations.

The Office of Independent Review (OIR), headed by Michael Gennaco, has issued annual reports on the sheriff’s department each year for the past decade. The reports generally focus on issues of discipline, transparency, and use-of-force by deputies.

In 2013, the OIR noted progress on a number of fronts, including the installation of security cameras in downtown L.A. jails. It comes after many hiccups, including a flooded storage room that destroyed months worth of video footage.

It also praised the ramping up of internal discipline in the department. In 2013, the sheriff’s department fired 93 employees, which is more than double the number fired in any recent year.

The report also contained some admonitions. The OIR said issues with alcohol related misconduct by off-duty sheriff's personnel remains a significant issue, even though the amount of incidents has gone down. The report also highlighted sexual misconduct by employees, potentially preventable deputy-involved shootings, and the department’s policy of alerting defense attorneys to deputy misbehavior.

Here are some highlights from the report, which is posted, in full below.

Cameras in the jails            

One of the biggest accomplishments in the past year is getting security camera systems functioning in Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility, both in downtown L.A., the OIR said. The cameras are playing a major role in both exonerating and disciplining deputies accused of abusing inmates.

“The Department now has a video record of 90% of force incidents in its downtown jails and is no longer completely reliant on ‘observations’ of inmates and jail deputies to try to figure out what has occurred,” the report said.

They add that while: “no system is perfect, the success of the cameras causes us to question why it took so long to heed our requests for this technology.”

The OIR recommended the department make installing video surveillance in the county’s other jails a top priority. They also recommend considering increasing the quality of the video surveillance from 10 frames per second to 20-30 frames per second.

Brady policy

In court, attorneys generally have the right to call the testimony of a witness into question by pointing out past behaviors that may discredit the witness. This applies to law enforcement witnesses as well. (The rule is based on a 1963 Supreme Court ruling in the case Brady v. Maryland.)

Different counties interpret this rule differently, but generally, any local jurisdiction will keep a “Brady list” of law enforcement officers that’s shared with prosecutors, who then report any witness on the list, if relevant to the case, to the defense team.

The OIR’s report says the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Brady list should include more deputies. At the moment, it says, deputies who are disciplined internally through the administrative process for “founded allegations involving moral turpitude or dishonesty,” aren’t being automatically turned over to prosecutors and defense attorneys. The OIR says the sheriff’s department and the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office are working on a new policy.

Alcohol-related misconduct

The OIR reports that while a lot of progress has been made on getting DUI’s under control, there was an uptick in the number of employees arrested for DUI in 2012, after a five-year low in 2011. In 2013, for which the OIR has data through October, DUI’s are down to 13 (there were 34 by that time in 2012). 

Treatment of jail visitors

This is a particularly sensitive issue after four deputies and one sergeant were indicted on federal charges for allegedly abusing visitors to Men’s Central Jail. The report declines to delve into the pending charges, but takes a look at changes to the visiting area since the alleged incidents occurred.

First, the OIR notes that since they became aware of a large number of visitors being arrested for having cell phones in a non-secure area of the jail, they pointed out the issue out to a jail captain and the arrests have stopped.

The captain also installed video surveillance cameras in the visiting area and there were no reports of use of force on jail visitors in 2013.

Deputy-involved shootings

After a spike in 2012, deputy-involved shootings declined somewhat in 2013. In 2012, there were 51; in 2013 there were 44.

The OIR looked closely at five deputy-involved shootings that while legal, resulted in discipline. Four involved foot pursuits where deputies made questionable tactical decisions. The fifth involved a mentally-ill woman and  the deputy was taken off patrol pending training on how to deal with people in a mental health crisis.

Office of Independent Review 11th Annual Report of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department