Replacing Invasive Strip Searches With Body Scanners at LA County Jails

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion to collect data on the implementation of recently installed body scanners meant to detect hidden contraband while reducing the use of invasive strip searches in county jails.

In 2012, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling established that law enforcement officials have the right to “perform thorough searches at intake”–even for those arrested for low-level misdemeanor offenses—in order to detect “disease, gang affiliation, and contraband.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that corrections officers should have to determine that a person poses a safety risk before performing an “inherently harmful, humiliating, and degrading” search. “The harm to privacy interests,” Breyer wrote, “would seem particularly acute where the person searched may well have no expectation of being subect to such a search, say, because she simply received a traffic ticket for failing to buckle a seatbelt, because he had not previously paid a civil fine, or because she had been arrested for minor trespass.”

The same year, LA County’s blue ribbon Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence (CCJV) issued a 194-page report brimming with scathing findings, plus a list of 63 recommendations for how to address disturbing problems–like retaliatory strip searches–within the then-seriously troubled Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Punitive Searches

The report expressed concern that members of the LA County Sheriff’s Department used strip searches to “intentionally humiliate” inmates.

A retired LASD lieutenant told the commission that deputies strip-searched inmates in front of everyone to embarrass them for minor infractions.

And a former inmate at Pitchess Detention Center reported to the commission that deputies subjected him to seven strip searches in a row in the wake of a riot on the inmate’s floor. “When the inmate finally protested, he was handcuffed and left naked in the shower area for six hours until a Sergeant finally arrived on the floor,” the report states.

Additionally, in March 2010, two female former inmates at the LA’s Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF) filed a lawsuit claiming that the LASD subjected female jail inmates to degrading searches without probable cause. The ongoing case, Amador v. Baca, has since expanded into a class action, with new members of the class still being added.

Another former CRDF pre-trial inmate Lecia L. Shorter accused LASD members of subjecting her to unnecessary body cavity searches, inaccurately classifying her as a mentally ill inmate, and shackling her for hours, mostly naked, to a cell door.

Last month, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Shorter should be allowed to sue the county and LASD, and that a lower court’s dismissals of some of Shorter’s claims were improper. The appeals court panel reversed the lower court’s denial of a new trial.

Shorter “presented uncontroverted evidence that the County, tasked with supervising high-observation housing for mentally ill women, has a policy of shackling the women to steel tables in the middle of an indoor recreation room as their sole form of recreation, and that jail officials routinely leave noncompliant detainees naked and chained to their cell doors, for hours at a time without access to food, water, or a toilet,” the opinion stated.

Reducing the Need for Searches

In their 2012 report, the civilian commissioners recommended the LA County Sheriff’s Department follow the lead of other similarly-sized jurisdictions that had successfully reduced the need for strip and cavity searches by adopting full-body scanners.

The sheriff’s department launched a pilot program in 2014 to implement the scanners at the Inmate Reception Center, where inmates are first processed into the county’s jail system. The LASD hopes to “curtail the supply of
contraband entering custody facilities, and to provide additional privacy during intake and routine searches.”

A 2015 report from correctional consultants hired by the board of supervisors recommended adding a total of 18 body scanners at the Century Regional Detention Facility, the Inmate Reception Center, the Old Inmate Reception Center, Pitchess Detention Center–South facility, and North County Correctional Facility. The department followed the report’s recommendations, and all scanners were installed as of May 2018. Still, the county struggled to implement the full 2015 plan for the scanners.

Tuesday’s motion, authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas directs the sheriff’s department, the county CEO’s office, the Office of the Inspector General, and other relevant county departments to report back to the board in 90 days with data that reveals how often body scanners are used at each of the jails. The supes also want to know how often visual scans and strip searches are being used, who is being subjected to the searches, who is conducting them, as well as when and why they are administered.

“I believe everyone agrees on the need to reduce and hopefully eliminate the need for strip searches, while balancing the need to identify and reduce contraband in the jails and preserve the dignity of inmates,” said Supervisor Solis. “With body scanners deployed in the County’s jail facilities, today’s action is about supporting our shared goals of safety, transparency, efficiency, and dignity.”

The motion directs county departments to report back regarding barriers to full implementation of body scanners (and thus, reduction of invasive strip searches), and recommendations for overcoming those barriers.

The supes want additional data on who, when, and why inmates refuse body scanners and opt for strip searches, and how the department is keeping track of this information.

The report should also include information on radiation exposure produced by the scanners, according to the motion, as well as any other recommendations for using body scanners in a manner that will “uphold the dignity” of inmates while keeping jails safe.

“By reducing the need to conduct strip searches for contraband, body scanners enhance the safety of both County jail staff and inmates while also promoting the dignity of inmates,” the motion’s coauthor, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, said. “We should examine and, where needed, strengthen implementation of the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence’s recommendations on body scanners, in order to make the most of what this technology has to offer.”

Image of body scanner at Kern County jail rel="noopener" target="_blank">by Kern County Sheriff’s Department.


  • Hmm…like any machine, these can’t take the place of the five human senses, experience and intuition. I would be curious if there’s been a study to collect data on the amount of contraband these “wonder scanners” miss and allow into the jails? How much illegal narcotics and other dangerous items are folks missing and allowing into the jails due to reliance on a search (or scan rather) performed by machine?

    Shinny “new bells, whistles and the latest whatmacalit” are only as good as they are engineered to be, only after being correctly identified to fit the needs of the customer and implemented in the correct. We all know big government has never been good at accomplishing this task.

    When an organization has no sense of fiscal responsibility or accountability, is perceived to have deep pockets (i.e, taxpayers) by suppliers (county=sucker) and is full of career bureaucrats whith self fulfilling delusions of all knowing grandeur, you have the makings of a calamitous and costly failure.

  • Oh..wait until the lawsuits come in by folks claiming their excessive exposure to body scanning radiation caused them to become sterile or get cancer. Oh it will happen in this litigious state and age we live in.

    Somebody will jump on board claiming this wasn’t well thoug out, the data supplied by the now defunct scanner manufacturer (of course the County went with the lowest bid…go figure) was faulty and whose left holding the big turd…the taxpayers of LA County. Of course all the executives and BOS members are all long since retired and collecting their “well earned” pensions from the same LA County Taxpayers.

  • This is an absolute joke.

    Inmates can opt out of the scanners (Southsiders have a standing order to not go through them except at PDC South). The scanner have the potential to identify items but the reader (Deputies and Custody Assistants) are poorly trained and when they tried these MILLION DOLLAR scanners out missed nearly 70% of the items including weapons.

    Cal-osha checked the radiation level emitted from the machine and said it is within exceptsble levels. When asked by rank and file guys if he would stand next to the machine for 20-30 hours a week the answer was NO FRIGGIN WAY. but hey it’s within the current exceptsble levels.

    How many deputies could have been hired for the 18 Million they spent.

  • I find the implication that Deputies and Custody Assistants enjoy doing strip searches including looking up inmates behinds to be completely absurd. It’s disgusting for all involved. That being said the jails continue to be plagued by dangerous contraband. It’s smuggled in via visits, including those by corrupt and dishonest attorneys. The addition of a reliable method of eliminating the constant need for so-called strip searches as inmates move in and out of the jails would be a blessing, but reliable technology doesn’t exist. The constant targeting blaming and scapegoating Law Enforcement for the ills of society is slowly degrading the level of safety and peace in our communities. I used to recruit honorable young men and women for Law Enforcement but now I recommend against it as a career until the hateful mean-spirited diatribes, blaming and targeting and scapegoating diminish. When all other social programs fail to deal with an individual’s aberrant behavior we call the Cops. Society then blames the Cops for not fixing what no one else previously could. When fancy neighborhoods where the self-appointed elites live start to degrade maybe reasonable Law Enforcement will be in vogue again. Until then I regrettably don’t recommend it as a career.

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