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LA County Sheriff Lee Baca answers criticism from Board of Supervisors over jail violence

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca talks about the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities program during a news conference at Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters Oct. 6, 2010 in Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca talks about the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities program during a news conference at Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters Oct. 6, 2010 in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Los Angeles Country Sheriff Lee Baca met with the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to discuss their 63 proposed measures for jail reforms. The board grilled Sheriff Baca on the notorious issues of violence in his jails, specifically the use of excessive force against inmates.

Baca expressed his openness to a collaborative process and fulfilling a recommendation proposed by the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, electing a new inspector general. Still, he clashed with the board – Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky argued that the Board of Supervisors should select the new inspector general.

Sheriff Baca is under mounting political pressure to reform L.A. County jails, and the board has put in place a compliance monitor to track his progress. Baca says he will begin to implement the new reforms, with or without crucial funding, and that a new force policy will be released in January.

Sheriff Baca answers our questions about the events going on in the LA County jail system.

What role do you see this inspector general playing?
“Essentially to oversee what our policies and procedures are and the level of training we provide our deputies, and in the event there is a misconduct issue the investigative process is thoroughly investigating what the facts are… Basically to be a communication link between the department and the supervisors.”

Has the issue been resolved as to who hires this person?
“The person most likely will be selected by the board, and that individual will work within the framework of the department.”

How do you intend to deal with the potential for conflict between your assessments and those of the new inspector general?
“Well, the board will first require that the inspector general must understand the legal ramifications of the power of such and office and there are very distinct rules must be followed regarding California law, regarding labor law, regarding even the board of supervisors, so the individual is just not going to be a loose cannon, they have to look at things from a practical point of view not just a political point of view.”

What do you view as the major outstanding reforms of the 63 proposed measures?
“We have already implemented 20 and hope to have the rest by end of year. Two of the top ones are to fill the position of assistant sheriff with a very experienced individual… I’ve had several resumes and I’m looking very seriously at one at this point. Number two is that training supervision and policy are one of the three cornerstones of improvements that are necessary. I need supervision and that has to be funded, I also created a training bureau for the custody environment, the kind of force that’s used in the community is different than inside a jail, so we have to make sure that jails have a specialized form of need not just a policing need… We are the lowest use of force agency in America when compared to New York system and Chicago system. We have to legitimize the prevention of force as well.”

Did you error in trusting those under you to manage the jails?
“No, I think the findings of the commission were accusations but there were no probative investigations of the accusations. I have investigated some of them and I’m getting contradictive evidence.”

So are you taking issue with the findings of these commissions?
“I questions the facts that make the findings…I will go out and find out whether the facts support the finding… but the recommendations are sensible sound many are things I had been trying to do but I need support and funding to do them. The raggedness of the findings is not my biggest concern, but no I’m not convinced that the individuals being blamed for the problems are the cause of the problems. Force is a spontaneous thing that happened in the jail. One third of all of our force is breaking up fights between inmates. That has nothing to do with shift rotation. We have record low significant force, and all significant force is documented in data system. Commanders were not examining the data system to look for trends…Every person that ever visited the jail including the commission itself never came out saying they saw first hand of anything.”

So you don’t think this is a systemic problem of management within the system?
“There is a lack of the number of additional supervisors which I reported years ago, there was not a force prevention policy, now we have one, and the ability to train people was not sufficiently strong enough, because we don’t have enough training staff. Now all of those are systemic and process oriented.”

Frank Stoltze, KPPC reporter, continues this conversation.

What do you think about the Sheriff’s notions that the findings of the commission were not accurate?
“What’s interesting about the sheriff is on the one hand he does not accept the findings of the commission but on the other hand he accepts the recommendations of the commission… He said that internal investigators only found two of the ACLU complaints to be true, he dismissed the testimony of inmates... I’ll note though that there are former sheriff commanders who testified before the commission that there is this culture of violence or at least a culture of a failure to fully investigate the instances of abuse.”

One of the recommendations was that there are more civilian guards in jails, what problems might come with those lengthy periods of service in jails?
“What they want to do is set up a dual track where you are trained to be a jail guard or patrol deputy which are very different skills right now all deputies carry their first few years as jail guards, the challenge with that is the union has set up this ration where 65 percent have to be deputies and 35 percent have to be civilian guards to protect the number of jobs. They are going to have to deal with the union, which has expressed some opposition to that.”

Who besides inmates testified?
“There were civilians who testified, not just the inmates. This commission found what it described as a persistent deputy on inmate problem. Most of the deputies acted to be professionals and were acting within the law, but there is a problem, with the violence and the failure to report the abuse.”

Why is this issue not getting as much attention?
“All is happening behind bars inside LA county jails. It doesn’t get near attention that the LAPD incidents of abuse got which were video taped… part of the difficulty in getting to this issue is all of this is happening behind closed doors with people who were accused of have been convicted of crimes.”

Weigh In:

Should Sheriff Baca be handling jail reforms on his own? What is the role of entities like the Board of Supervisors and the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence in implementing changes? What kind of collaborative process will be most beneficial in L.A. County jails?


Lee Baca, Sheriff, Los Angeles County

Frank Stoltze, KPCC reporter

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