Crime & Justice

Source: LA Sheriff agrees to new reforms at jails, settles civil DOJ lawsuit

Los Angeles County Sheriff candidate Jim McDonnell does an interview during his election gathering at the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday night, June 3.
Los Angeles County Sheriff candidate Jim McDonnell does an interview during his election gathering at the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday night, June 3.
MayaSugarman/KPCC

In a long awaited legal settlement with the United States Department of Justice, Los Angeles County has committed to a series of reforms inside its troubled jail system, according to a source familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Justice Department had accused the county of providing constitutionally inadequate care to mentally ill inmates and said Sheriff’s deputies engaged in a pattern of excessive force.

In an email, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he's made great strides since he took over the embattled department and is "deeply committed to working with federal partners" to continue reforming the department.

But he also seemed to hint that some reforms will require funding, which is controlled by county Supervisors: "I look forward to working with County leadership as we seek the support to effect the changes that we all want and that those entrusted to our custody, and our entire community, deserves."

Details of the settlement were not immediately available. The settlement agreement, which will be monitored by a special team and enforced by a federal judge, is expected to be filed with the court Wednesday - according to the source.

It’s the latest effort by the federal government and local civil rights leaders to force the Sheriff's Department to fix myriad problems that led to the abrupt resignation of Sheriff Lee Baca last year.

In June, a jury convicted three deputies for beating a handcuffed man at the jail.

Los Angeles County lockups house more than 15,000 inmates. It is the largest local jail system in the county, with the largest population of mentally ill inmates.

In 2012, an independent blue ribbon panel described a “persistent pattern of unreasonable force” by Sheriff’s deputies against inmates. The report said the problem “dates back many years” and blamed Baca and his then Undersheriff, Paul Tanaka. Tanaka has since been indicted for obstruction of justice for his alleged role in hiding an informant from the FBI.

Baca left office a month after the federal government indicted 18 deputies on civil rights and corruption charges. He had been preparing to run for a fifth term.

The FBI continues to investigate the department.

Reform efforts have been under way since the blue ribbon report, which recommended a series of changes at county lockups, especially at the aging Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. The reforms included more supervision of deputies and more cameras.

In December, the county settled a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties union that also includes federal monitoring. The deal calls for a more restrictive use-of-force policy at the jails, expanded training for jail deputies and an improved process for inmates to file grievances. It has 106 individual requirements.

Under one section, that agreement said it should be a violation of policy “to harass or otherwise verbally provoke an inmate to justify the use of force.”

Last month, the sheriff also agreed to address allegations of widespread racial profiling by deputies in Antelope Valley public housing. As part of another agreement with the federal government, the Sheriff will be monitored by a team of policing experts as they re-train deputies assigned to the region and draw up new protocols to hold them accountable.

The county will also pay $700,000 in penalties to people harmed by discrimination and a $25,000 fine to the federal government.

Problems at the department have cost the county tens of millions of dollars in legal costs over the years. In the county’s 2013 fiscal year alone, the county paid out $43 million in litigation costs.

In January, a judge ordered the department to pay $5.4 million in legal fees to attorney representing five inmates who were beaten by deputies. That was in addition to the nearly one million paid to the victims.

Civil rights activists have long complained about what they say is a culture of mismanagement and impunity at the sprawling Sheriff’s Department, which employs nearly 9,000 deputies and patrols 42 cities in addition to unincorporated areas and the jails.

The blue ribbon panel also said the department needed to change its culture, and suggested the county set up an oversight panel.

The Board of Supervisors voted to create a panel, but its responsibilities are still being worked out. McDonnell has resisted allowing Inspector General Max Huntsman access to department personnel records, citing California’s Peace Officer Bill of Rights that protects officer privacy.

Huntsman has said that kind of access to an inspector general is allowed under law, and is critical for him to effectively watchdog the department.

This story has been updated.