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Crime & Justice

The 5 top LA criminal justice stories of 2017

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted in March of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and perjury.
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted in March of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and perjury.
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Crime is always a big story in Los Angeles, birthplace of the modern street gang, home of the drive-by shooting and stomping ground for the LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff's Department – agencies that regularly lead the nation’s list of police departments that use force.

There were a number of law enforcement stories that might qualify as among the most important of the year. We've whittled the list down to five.


For years, former jail inmates complained sheriff’s deputies regularly beat them. Independent watchdogs and civil rights group chimed in, saying even visitors to the Twin Towers jail downtown could get a beating if they violated jail rules.

But what began as an FBI investigation of a pattern of excessive use of force against inmates ended with former Sheriff Lee Baca’s conviction in March on obstruction of justice, conspiracy and perjury charges. Baca and his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, were the masterminds of a scheme to stop the FBI’s inquiry into jail abuses. It included hiding the FBI’s informant and threatening federal agents with arrest if they continued the probe.

The first jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal. In the second trial, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson prohibited Baca from using virtually all of the character witnesses that he had used in the first. Anderson also prohibited Baca from using his Alzheimer’s disease as a defense.

Baca, 75, has appealed his conviction and remains free.


The Los Angeles City Attorney’s office filed its first gang injunction in 1987, asking a judge to issue a restraining order against the Playboys Gangsta Crips in West LA. The order named the gang and a few of its members, but not all. Like the dozens of  injunctions that would follow, people would have no idea they were under an injunction until police stopped them on the street.  

The injunction prohibited people suspected by police of being gang members from a wide range of otherwise legal activities, such as carrying on conversations on certain street corners or wearing clothing associated with the gang. Courts rejected civil liberties lawsuits challenging the injunctions' constitutionality. 

This year, City Attorney Mike Feuer and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck decided to reverse course, sending letters that lifted the injunctions for more than 7,000 mostly African-American and Latino young men – 80 percent of the people covered by injunctions.

It was a tacit acknowledgement that the gang wars have substantially subsided and, for some, an acknowledgement that the injunctions were draconian and unfair.

For the LAPD, injunctions have long been another tool to fight gang violence. Officers could stop any suspected member of a gang on the street. Civil libertarians said this resulted in a serious violation of the civil liberties of people with only a loose affiliation or no connection at all to gangs. An audit documented some merely had a cousin in a gang – but the individual was seen talking to the cousin.

At the height of their use, the city had gang injunctions against more than 40 gangs that covered over 10,000 individuals. Over the years, 79 gangs and nearly 9,000 people were slapped with injunctions, according to the L.A. Times. Other jurisdictions used them too; the number reached 150 statewide.

But a 2016 audit of the state's CalGang database found serious problems with it. The LAPD, for example, inaccurately added non-gang members to the list - a list that is sometimes used by prosecutors to add gang enhancements to its charges against a defendant. Those enhancements can add years to a prison sentence. 


After an intense months-long debate sparked by the election of President Trump, the California legislature approved a so-called "sanctuary state" bill that severely limits cooperation between local police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. 

Governor Brown brokered the deal between State Senate President Pro-Tem Kevin de Leon and sheriffs around the state who wanted to continue working with ICE.

Police officers and sheriff’s deputies in California are now prohibited from asking about a person’s immigration status, detaining someone for the purposes of handing them over to ICE or in any way helping federal agents arrest people solely on suspicion of being in the country illegally. Police chiefs and sheriffs also are prohibited from placing cops under the supervision of ICE.

The bill also requires California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to create policies to limit ICE agents’ ability to grab people at public schools, libraries, health facilities and courthouses around the state.

The idea is to create "safe zones" for people without proper authorization to be in the U.S.

Some law enforcement officials opposed the legislation.


Virtually every police and sheriff’s department in California classifies body camera video shot by officers as evidence, which means they can use that as a reason to keep the images out of the public eye.

But that is changing as law enforcement leaders and rank-and-file cops get more comfortable with the technology.

This year, the LAPD – the department with the largest number of cameras deployed – began looking at releasing video of all officer-involved shootings. The L.A. Sheriff’s Department doesn’t have cameras yet, but Sheriff Jim McDonnell says a $55 million plan to deploy cameras over the next four years would include releasing video from high-profile incidents. The Board of Supervisors must approve the funding.

Body cameras are beginning to do their job. An LAPD officer is now struggling to explain video that apparently shows him planting cocaine on a suspect. A defense attorney uncovered the video during discovery in the man’s trial on felony hit-and-run and possession of cocaine charges. In another high profile incident, Pasadena Police are struggling to explain why officers broke a man’s leg as they were taking him into custody on a traffic violation.


Sheriff McDonnell, hardly a radical reformer, nonetheless declared in 2017 that the names of deputies who commit misconduct that raises questions about their credibility should be turned over to the district attorney.

So if a deputy lies on a police report, the DA should know that because he might lie on future reports, McDonnell said. Under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as "Brady," the DA also has an obligation to inform defense attorneys of any evidence that might point to a defendant’s innocence – including questions about the arresting deputy’s honesty. The sheriff currently has a list of about 300 such deputies he wants to give to DA Jackie Lacey.

The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs filed a lawsuit to block McDonnell, arguing police personnel files are secret – even if they reveal misconduct prosecutors are obligated to tell the defense about.

The California Supreme Court considers the issue next year.

It’s unclear how many police departments have lists of officers with credibility problems. Some DA’s in California have struck deals with police unions to obtain the lists. Lacey has not, but says she supports the sheriff’s effort.