Late last week, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice notified LA County that the feds were opening a “pattern and practice” investigation into allegations of abusive use of force against jail inmates by LA County Sheriff’s deputies.
In response to the news, at least two of the challengers for the office of sheriff said over the weekend that they would welcome a federal consent decree, which is one of the possible outcomes of this newest federal investigation into alleged wrongdoing inside the scandal plagued LASD.
A TRIO OF PROBES
According to the LA Times, federal authorities opened the probe after becoming “‘…increasingly concerned about use of force and alleged abuse by jail deputies and staff.’”
This new round of federal scrutiny follows the FBI’s already existing criminal investigation into brutality and corruption in the jails, and comes almost exactly a year after the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence issued its final report on September 28, 2012, describing:
“…a troubling culture in Custody that resulted in the excessive use of force in the jails...” The commissioners wrote that while many deputies working in the jails were hardworking, dedicated professionals, other deputies’ behavior toward their charges was “…reflective of a disturbing mindset that promotes a lack of respect for inmates, an aggressive view that force is best used early and often to control the inmate population, and a disdain for those supervisors who have endeavored to enforce contrary principles.”
And then at the end of this past June, the feds released a report that documented, among oher problems, “a pattern of unreasonable force, including a pattern of the use of force against handcuffed individuals” by sheriff’s deputies out in Antelope Valley.
“I think the people of Los Angeles should be very concerned when the sheriff’s department is the subject of not one, not two, but three different investigations by the federal government,”said Peter Eliasberg, the Legal Director for the Southern California ACLU. “I’d love to know if there’s any other law enforcement agency in the country that’s ever been the subjects of three different federal investigations.”
It is not at all clear whether the LA County Sheriff’s Department holds any kind of ignominious title, but the existence of three federal investigations—one of them known to be multi-pronged and wide-ranging—is not any kind of positive sign.
WOULD A FEDERAL CONSENT DECREE BE GOOD OR BAD?
A DOJ “pattern and practice” investigation could produce any one of a range of possible outcomes. At the lowest end, it could determine that everything is mostly fine and dandy, with perhaps a few improvements suggested. At the low-to mid range, it could require a Memorandum of Agreement in which certain reforms are agreed upon, which are then nominally monitored by the feds until all the necessary boxes are checked. The most stringent outcome would be a federal consent decree, which is essentially like a plea bargain. It is a highly detailed and legally binding agreement to eliminate the troubling “pattern and/or practice,” all of which is enforced by a federal judge. (The LAPD’s post-Rampart consent decree lasted from 2001 to 2013.)
Robert Olmsted, the retired LASD commander who is challenging Baca for the office of sheriff, told WLA that he was not at all surprised by the new investigation, and said that he would welcome a federal consent decree.
“At this particular point, I think it’s absolutely necessary. The only way we’re going to create transparency is by having somebody else come in and monitor exactly what we do until such time as we can say okay, everything is running smoothly and we have a fresh clean ship.”
While there has been improvement in the jails, Olmsted said, he believes the root causes of the longtime problems have remained inadequately examined by the sheriff.
“In fact, I understand they’re still doing a bunch of dumb stuff in the jails right now,” Olmsted said, “that they’re lying about some of the force that is occurring.” He then related an instance, he said occurred in the past month in which a sergeant allegedly told a deputy to write up a use of force case in such a way that the force would not appear to be excessive—when in fact it was. Olmsted said that the deputy was troubled by this instruction.
“This gets to my point that if you don’t drill down and find the cancerous cells and determine what the causal factors were, then you’re bound to repeat the problem.”
Lou Vince, the LAPD detective who is running for sheriff, is the other candidate who said he “unequivocally” favored the idea of a consent decree.
“I don’t see a downside to it,” he explained in an email. “I would see the federal intervention as a welcome helping hand, not troublesome meddling. I lived/worked through a consent decree at the LAPD. Everyone bristled at first, but as it progressed, it became very positive and simply the way of doing business- and still is even after being released from it.” [It would hold] “the Sheriff, and the LASD as a whole, accountable for actually implementing the reforms needed and sets goals and measures of effectiveness. No more hand-wringing or political two-steps.”
When asked about the possibility of a federal consent decree, sheriff’s department spokesman Steve Whitmore said it was “presumptuous” for the department to comment on the issue. “That’s a decision that is not ours to make.” he said, but added that while the department was “cooperating fully with the investigation,” the sheriff did not agree that there were big causes for concern. “The use of force is down dramatically,” he said, and that any use of force was immediately “reported and investigated.”
TREATMENT OF THE MENTALLY ILL
In addition to general brutality in the jail, the civil rights probe will examine the LASD’s treatment of the mentally ill specifically, a topic that has been flagged as an issue of serious concern in the past by federal officials, the ACLU and the jails commission.
In fact, as early as 2002, Sheriff Baca signed a “Memorandum of Agreement” with the Department of Justice agreeing to a series of conditions designed to improve the treatment of the mentally ill who were in jail custody. Then in 2009, the ACLU released a report authored by a nationally recognized expert on mental health issues in jails and prisons named Dr. Terry Kupers. In his report, Dr. Kupers described what he called “toxic” conditions for the mentally ill housed inside Men’s Central Jail.
When news of the latest probe broke, LA Times editorial board member, Sandra Hernandez, had some fairly harsh things to say about what the investigation implies about the sheriff’s reported ongoing failure to address the problem. She wrote:
This second investigation is extremely troubling. After all, this is the sheriff who referred to himself as a social worker in a 2010 interview with my colleague Patt Morrison, and who considers himself an advocate for the mentally ill in the jails.
If he’s an advocate, then I think he’s done a pretty poor job of it. Just consider that he agreed to implement sweeping reforms in 2002 as part of a memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department. That deal called for training deputies to deal with mentally ill inmates and in suicide prevention and to make other improvements to avoid a civil rights lawsuit. And now, a decade later, the Justice Department is once again raising questions about the treatment of those inmates.
And then there was this:
….Last year, the county Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence found that more than “30% of the use-of-force incidents in custody involved individuals who have a mental history.”
That same commission also noted that although the 2002 agreement provided great promise for change, the sheriff appeared to have no memory of it. The commissioners wrote that eight years after Baca signed it, he said in a sworn deposition that “he had never seen this agreement, was unaware of any DOJ findings regarding mistreatment of mentally ill inmates in the county jails, and had no knowledge of the MOA or the DOJ findings letter underlying the agreement….”
Miriam Krinsky, the executive director for the jails commission, also seemed unsurprised by the feds’ latest move. “While the County has made significant progress in implementing many of the Commission’s recommendations,” she emailed, “the recent DOJ investigation confirms that serious challenges remain and that full implementation of the Commission’s reforms—including the creation of a new Office of Inspector General—is needed.”
Yes, that Office of the Inspector General issue is something we’ll be harping on soon.
PS: While sheriff’s challenger Pat Gomez didn’t seem to put out any new policy statements, candidate Paul Tanaka announced a new policy-to-be on “concealed carry” permits for firearms, otherwise known as CCWs, which Sheriff Baca infamously used to hand out to celebrities, judges, and other high profile pals.
NOTE: We’ll catch up on stories on a bunch of other topics tomorrow.