The long-expected settlement between the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Department of Justice was officially announced Wednesday morning at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in downtown LA.
The settlement concerns the failure to provide a safe, appropriately monitored, non-abusive environment, including “adequate mental health services,” for the mentally ill in the LA County’s long-troubled jails. It is the culmination of two DOJ investigations that span what is now nearly two decades of scrutiny of LA’s county lock-ups, starting in June 1996, “to determine whether the conditions in the jails violated the constitutional rights of its prisoners.”
Now, 19 years later, those investigations have resulted in a lawsuit that was filed in federal court, also on Wednesday, in which the DOJ alleges that indeed the County of Los Angeles “deprived” inmates in its jails of “rights, privileges or immunities” protected by the Constitution of the United States.”
Wednesday’s settlement is an agreement in lieu of the feds’ legal complaint going forward. The agreement required a stamp of approval by the LA County Board of Supervisors, who did the requisite stamping in a closed door meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement she hopes the settlement helps the county avoid “protracted litigation” and “provides a blueprint for durable reform.”
For the most part, however the tone at the press conference was cooperative and non-adversarial. For instance, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mark Kappelhoff made a point of reaching out to deputies and others working in the jails, whom he thanked as “dedicated professionals…. who are in the front lines at the jails every day. Their efforts are critical to the long-term success of this agreement…”
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS IN THE SETTLEMENT?
The agreement spells out in detail the series of marks that the department needs to hit within the next year, if it wants to stay out of legal hot water. It includes sections on new “scenario-based” training for LASD staff, suicide risk procedures, appropriate data gathering, the use of restraints, use of force and more. The settlement also delves deeply into what kind of review procedures should kick in within the department, if and when things go wrong—in other words, if there is a suicide, attempted self harm, or a “critical incident.”
As to how the settlement actually works: if the department fails to hit the agreed upon marks specified, the federal judge in charge of the settlement can step in and institute penalties—i.e. the oversight period can be extended. The department’s progress will be overseen most closely by an independent monitor, who will also have the help of a small team of “content experts.”
Attorney Richard Drooyan was named as the monitor. As a former head of the Los Angeles police commission, a former chief assistant U.S. attorney and—most relevantly—the general counsel for the Citizen’s Commission for Jail Violence—Drooyan is considered to be an excellent choice. Plus, due to their time spent together on the CCJV, he is someone with whom Sheriff McDonnell already has a good and established relationship.
THE SHERIFF PICKS UP THE TOOL
The sheriff seems genuinely to welcome the agreement, which he described a “…comprehensive approach to reform” that he and the department’s custody leadership “fully embrace.”
McDonnell also rightly sees the 60-page document as a useful tool that—as he told radio host Warren Olney Wednesday on KCRW’s Which Way LA?—will give him the needed leverage “to get the resources necessary,” to accomplish long lasting reform.
When asked about the personnel training that the settlement requires, McDonnell quickly gave what he said was a representative example of why it was badly needed. “We teach deputies in the academy to be assertive, to raise your voice where appropriate…” but, he said, “if you do that with someone with autism, that is exactly the wrong thing to do, it sets someone off” and you end up in a confrontation that could have been avoided.
In a letter sent to department members, McDonnell was similarly upbeat about the potential positive effects of the deal with the feds, describing the agreement as an opportunity.
Even prior to the agreement, he wrote, the department had already been able to use requirements contained in the coming settlement to make needed changes and put in place additional resources—with, of course, the fiscal support of the board of supervisors. Those changes included:
· 500 additional LASD personnel
. Over 160 additional DMH personnel
· Multiple jail modifications to reduce suicide risks
· More frequent safety checks
· Additional cleaning crews
· Increased training opportunities for interaction with the mentally ill
· Enhanced inmate assessments and additional treatment
· Drug treatment and community re-entry planning
· Additional out of cell therapy and recreation time
“You are part of an historic time for the LASD,” McDonnell wrote, “and this agreement will establish us as being on the leading edge of modern correctional systems. While I have always said I welcome outside eyes on the Department, this will continue to be a collaborative process, and one that we will accomplish together, as a team.”
THE BAD OLD DAYS
So, if things have improved, how how bad were they before?
Actually, really bad—at least in certain quarters.
As recently as four years ago, the LA Times reported the story about a young deputy, an “honor recruit” who was a standout at the academy, was allegedly forced to beat up a mentally ill inmate, then to participate in a cover up. According to the LA Times’ Robert Faturechi, the deputy, Joshua Sather, “said that shortly before the inmate’s beating his supervisor said, ‘We’re gonna go in and teach this guy a lesson,” according to the records.” The attack, according to Sather, was then covered up.”
By the way, reportedly no one was disciplined over the whole mess.
Many of the worst examples of the kind of conduct that brought on the law suit and the settlement have to do with the mishandling and/or neglect of suicidal inmates, too often resulting in tragic and unnecessary inmate deaths, such as the death of 22-year-old John Horton, whose suicide in Men’s Central Jail we wrote about in 2009.
And, although the DOJ admits that there has been much laudable reform, there are more recent incidents, like the circumstances last month that led the sheriff to relieve 10 department members of duty after learning that an inmate who had displayed “suicidal ideation,” and was believed to have other mental problems, had reportedly been in some kind of restraints for 32 hours without being fed or given more than a cup of water, after head-butting or pushing a female deputy causing her to sustain a concussion.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE MENTALLY ILL
The settlement also makes it very clear that, while most of the reforms it requires have to do with the treatment of the mentally ill, the DOJ is equally concerned with the treatment—or more properly mistreatment—of inmates in general, such as the abuse of a jail visitor that resulted in the recent conviction of three former department members, and the plea deals for two others.
In that regard, the settlement points to the ACLU’s massive class action lawsuit, Rosas v. Baca, that was settled earlier this year, known as the Rosas agreement.
The lawsuit, originally filed in 2012, alleged that then Sheriff Lee Baca and his top staff condoned a long-standing and widespread pattern of violence and abuse by deputies of inmates in the county’s jails. The suit was brought in the name of Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin who, according to the complaint, “were savagely beaten and threatened with violence by deputies of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.” Rosas and Goodwin were only two of the dozens of inmates whose reported abuse was described in the complaint.
The Rosas settlement, like the DOJ settlement, resulted in a roadmap for reform, complete with required goals, the accomplishment of which, is to be overseen by three independent monitors, and enforced by a federal judge who can find the department in contempt.
Wednesday’s DOJ settlement repeatedly mentions the Rosas agreement, suggesting that it is filling in what Rosas didn’t cover: “…this Agreement addresses remaining allegations concerning suicide prevention and mental health care at the Jails…”
Peter Eliasberg, the Southern California ACLU’s legal director, and the prime mover behind Rosas, was very heartened by the DOJ settlement. “For far too long, the County Board of Supervisors turned a blind eye to evidence of savage abuse by deputies and failure to provide even minimally adequate treatment to inmates with mental illness, even after presented with 2008 and 2010 ACLU reports that specifically outlined many of the same problems this agreement seeks to fix.” This oversight, he said, along with the Rosas agreement…”will finally bring much needed change to the nation’s largest jail system.”
At the press conference, McDonnell expressed similar sentiments, but understandibly gave them a slightly more buoyant spin. “This is our collective opportunity,” he said, “to be on the leading edge of reform and to serve as a model for the nation.”
We genuinely hope so.