Former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted of obstructing an FBI investigation into guards who brutally beat inmates and took bribes to smuggle contraband into jails.
Suspicions of these abuses of power were raised in part by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Peter Eliasberg is Chief counsel for First Amendment Rights at the ACLU of Southern California. He spoke to KPCC’s Alex Cohen about his work to address abuse in LA County jails. Hear their discussion or find excerpts below.
When did suspicions about Sheriff Lee Baca and the jails first come to your attention?
We became very concerned in 2008 and 2009 about a dramatic uptick in the levels of complaints we were getting about deputies beating inmates. There’s always been problems with physical abuse in the jails but we saw a real surge in it. And we were not only getting complaints but we were seeing with bad injuries that didn’t want to talk to us – they were clearly scared.
This just continued 2008, 2009, 2010 and we issued a series of reports. And the Sheriff’s Department basically blew them off saying: “There’s nothing to it. Inmates make this stuff up and the ACLU exaggerates.
What were some of the challenges of getting at the truth?
There are certainly is a challenge because it’s behind bars. But the Sheriff’s Department created a lot of the challenges. What we’d see is that inmates who would get beaten up would then be put in discipline. The claim was that they had instigated the abuse. So they would go into discipline and we would have a hard time seeing them there and so the injuries would go away. Worst of all was a pretty common practice where the Sheriff’s Department would write false reports and provide them to the District Attorney. And DA ended up charging the inmates with resisting the officers or assaulting the officer.
The biggest break was when some civilian eye witness came forward and said, “this is what we’re seeing.” Then it became much harder for the Sheriff’s Department to claim “Oh, the inmates make this stuff up,” because you had chaplains and other eye witnesses talking about the brutality.
When the decision came down yesterday, what was the first thing to go through your mind?
This is the culmination of a long saga and there was a sadness here. This is a horrible, horrible situation. Inmates who were brutalized had teeth kicked in, shattered jawbone and so on. And it also was a black mark on Los Angeles County in generally. So there’s a sadness here that this ever had to happen.
What message will this send to law enforcement here and around the country?
I hope it sends a clear message – not just the conviction of Lee Baca but the fact that so many people in the Sheriff’s Department were convicted.
This sentence will come down in the shadow of the new attorney general saying “We’re going to back off. The federal government is going to back off investigating law enforcement agencies, which I think it’s very troubling and concerns me a lot. In the end, there was no redress from the local DA. There was no redress from the California attorney general, in terms of looking at these cases and seriously pursuing criminal cases. So, it’s frightening to me that the attitude of the new administration is: “We need to back off investigating law enforcement agencies.”