ACLU Courts LA County Jail LASD Sheriff Lee Baca

So Cal ACLU Files Big Federal Law Suit Against Sheriff’s Dept. for Jails Violence

On Wednesday morning, The ACLU of Southern California filed a federal class action suit
against the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department with the idea of getting a sharp-toothed federal injunction that will force the department, at legal gunpoint, if necessary, to make the changes necessary clean up its desperately troubled jails.

The suit makes it clear that it’s not looking merely for symptomatic tinkering, that it views the problems as systemic, and that they start at the top.

With this in mind, in addition to suing the LASD in general, the suit charges that Sheriff Lee Baca, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo, and former Chief of Custody Operations Dennis Burns all knew about “a longstanding, widespread pattern of violence by deputies against inmates in the county jails” —but when confronted with the abuse by concerned supervisors (as we reported here and here and here in Matt Fleischer’s Dangerous Jails series), Baca, Tanaka and company basically told the supervisors to buzz off—and the abuse was allowed to continue.

The 77-page complaint details an avalanche of horrific alleged incidents of inmates being slugged, tased, kicked, head-bashed, slammed and, in one case, scalp-carved by deputies—with several of the reported incidents occurring in front of witnesses, or while the inmate was handcuffed, or both. Many of the beatings reportedly resulted in multi-day hospital stays and permanent injuries.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, So Cal ACLU legal director, Peter Eliasberg, and Margaret Winter, the associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project, both said they expect the lawsuit to result in a federal injunction—likely in the form of a consent decree—- that will force the LASD into “real accountability.”

When I asked Winter whether or not she thought the ACLU had a good chance of getting the desired injunction, Winter answered strongly in the affirmative.

“I have really seldom felt more confident that litigation is going to result in a consent decree.” she said. “I mean, we have massive evidence even before discovery. And during the discovery phase of all this, we’re going to get everything. Everything.

(Just in case you’ve forgotten, discovery is the period of formal investigation — governed by court rules — that is conducted before trial. At that time one party may force the other to produce requested documents or other physical evidence, even if the second party really would rather not.)

Until very recently, said Winter, the department refused even to fork over its guidelines for use of force inside the jails. “We tried for years to get that.”

(For the record, I know from personal experience that one can easily get this kind of information from the LAPD, while the Sheriff’s Department is bothersomely withholding about trivial things.)

“Now [through the discovery process] we’re going to open the book and go into all the dark corners of the jails and shine a light on the fantastic secrecy that’s been the rule in the past.”

In reading over the just-filed 77 pages of the “Complaint for Injunctive Relief”—known formally as Rosas v. Baca— it does appear that the ACLU already has a lot of potent ammunition to get the court’s attention.

Some random examples of the allegations include:

In July 2011, two deputies beat a handcuffed inmate about the head and neck, the beating so severe that he required hospitalization outside the jail, and has permanent hearing loss in one ear.

In March 16, 2011, three deputies beat an African American inmate until he was unconscious then carved the letters M – Y into his scalp, the first two letters of “MYATE,” (or more commonly “MAYATE,”) a racial street slur meaning “black.”

In March 2011, deputies slammed a handcuffed inmate’s head into a cement wall, leaving him with a concussion and a gash that took 35 stitches to close, then beat him around the head and face when he came to, resulting in 2 days of hospitalization and four additional days in the jail’s medical unit. The ACLU reports that were several witnesses to this incident.

In February 2011, deputies severely beat a mentally ill inmate who was in jail on two warrants: for failure to pay his subway fare, and driving without a license. The beating resulted in a collapsed lung, two broken ribs, a nasal fracture and four broken teeth.

The list goes on from there, including the alleged 2008 rape by a deputy of Frank Mendoza, who was in LA County jail on a charge of public drunkenness. (That’s Mendoza in the video above.)

These are, of course, only allegations. But there are a lot of them. And included in the filing are accounts from a list of civilian witnesses, including two jails chaplains, and a former FBI agent.

LASD Commander James Hellmold was present at the press conference and answered reporters’ questions afterward. (Interestingly, Hellmold admitted he’d not been invited by the ACLU to the Press Conference, but saw a PR release announcing its existence, and simply decided he’d show up, like the rest of us, to find out what was being said. We, in the press, of course, were delighted that he chose to do so.)

In response to inquiries about the alleged beatings, Hellmold said that he “hoped deputies would be given the same courtesy given the inmates, of being considered innocent until proven guilty.”

(Winter said later, than if any deputies weren’t given due process, she guaranteed she’d be the first in line to bring suit to defend their constitutional rights.)

About the reported “culture of violence” inside the jail system, Helmold said that there was “a culture of violence,” inside the jails, but that it was “among the inmates,” more than half of whom he said, “are in jail on violent charges.”

When pressed on the topic by a TV reporter who asked what he thought about the sign-throwing, tattoo-sporting deputy gangs inside the jail, groups like the now-infamous 3000 Boys inside the jails, he said, “I have no comment.”

Hellmold is one of the three recently promoted commanders who are heading up the Sheriff’s special task force that was formed last fall to look into the accusations of inmate abuse by deputies. (As we have reported in the past, Hellmold is also part of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s inner circle, and a longtime donor to Tanaka’s political campaign outside the department. We also reported that Paul Tanaka was the one who was repeatedly obstructive when concerned department supervisors tried to institute reforms to curb the deputy on inmate violence.)

Oh, and Hellmold was one of those who told the LA Times back in October that reports on jail violence never reached the Sheriff.

Bring on the lawsuit—and the discovery.

PS: Matt Fleischer and I were happy to note that loads of material from our Dangerous Jails series was woven all through the ACLU’s 77-page lawsuit. (Just thought you’d like to know.)


  • Celeste, you have one article after another about corruption and problems with jails and prisons in California. I don’t hear about as many problems with correctional facilities in all the other states combined, and I don’t think that it’s because of a lack of coverage. There has to be a root problem responsible for this disparity.

    Many years ago, Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox was talking about prison reform and said, “If we want better prisons, the first thing we need is a better class of prisoner.”

    Does Calfornia need a better class of prisoners or does it need to clean house with those who manage the jails and prisons and start over?

    (And, don’t say that money is the problem, because there is enough money if the state quits paying ridiculous wages and benefits to the union prison workers.)

  • Well, money ain’t what’s causing it, you’re quite right. That leaves the other two options.

    In fairness, however, it may seem excessive right now on WLA because I’m hyper-focused on the jails. The moment for reform is now, not later—plus so much information is being leaked to me and to Matt, it would be….. journalistic malpractice not to follow it up the best we can.

    I don’t want to be reporting on these same awful problems five years from now. This is the time to go for broke. So we are. (As are others.)

  • Given the number of insiders, who are willing to talk about personal experiences with departmental corruption, or those who have been victimized by those corrupt executives – this is indeed the right time. There have never been more insiders willingly posting this type of truthful iinternal information on a public forum and are cooperating with investigators. Add to this, the combined number of management level personell who have been destroyed for simply (and legally) doing the right thing. Many victims – who were once “rising stars”, but since the executive destroyed them, they are only allowed to exist in lowly positions,with no hope of continuing with any career. This corruption is widespread and is institutionalized, and must change. The best way to remedy this would be that the LASD either be placed into a Federal receivership or that a civilian oversight committee must be put in place. Implementation of either will result in greater accountability, improved adherence to law and will also serve to remove the stronghold that it has with relation to the “code of silence” and the associated secrecy by which it has become institutionalized. The Deputies take their lead from persons who are higher than them on the food chain, living examples. When a deputy sees an executive falsely accuse a supervisor or manager because they wouldn’t be part of his conspiracy to destroy another Deputy, without cause. First – the executive becomes enraged and makes a series of quick decisions that end up rapidly killing your career. The very public ruination that follows does serve to send a message to all department members, that if you cross them, they can “take you out” anyone at any time – and it’s done publicly because they know no one will challenge them or stop them because they are protected from the ranks above them. There is so much more to this. But simply put – of course the deputies will victimize the inmates (and sometimes each other) because they are merely following a course of conduct, the most important example from the department leadership – and they see that it is ok and acceptable for them, that they are protected from avove, and all of this is validated by the fact tha no one suffers any repercussions.

  • Jane, I agree, the people coming forward out of the department are brave and amazing.

    By the way, I really came away from the ACLU event Wednesday feeling optimistic that this lawsuit is going to make a difference—in combination with ongoing reporting, and with what the feds are doing. I also have genuine hope that the commission will be a meaningful part of the mix. Every one of those pieces of the puzzle is needed if the reform you and I hope for is to happen.

  • Eeek, you’re right. I took it out of the filing and perpetuated the misspelling. Thanks for pointing it out. Oddly, just checking now, I see that the Urban Dictionary spells it both ways. But I think you’re exactly right. The only way I’ve seen the word spelled in the past is with the second “A.”

  • I’m not surprised Cmdr. Hellmold refused to comment on the “gang” cliques in the jails and in other parts (esp. patrol) of the Department. When was the last time he worked a jail facility? How long did he stay in his assignment as a patrol sergeant or lieutenant?
    But I’m sure now that he is in the hot seat with Daddy Tanaka, he’s under the gun to be one of the fix-it guys and girl(s). Jimmy, if you haven’t heard, you should look into the Booking Front cliques at IRC with the tattoo of “MAMA TRIED” on the back of their necks. The two deps who were fired, and one got their job back behind the assault of the fireman (significant other of a female dep) – you know whom I’m talking about… both got theirs on their necks, along with their IRC buddies…
    And how about the ELA “Regulators”?
    And how about the seemingly benign cliques in other patrol stations that have their own “Taz” tattoos, etc., and who their have their own “code of conduct” regarding arrest stats, etc. (BTW, I wonder if Mr. Tanaka has his tattoo removed yet.)
    Don’t get me wrong, there are thousands of us straight-as-an-arrow deputies who over the years have upheld our oaths to protect our communities, who proudly wear the badge and really BELIEVE in what we do and that what we do out there makes a difference… who never stole a dime from our traffic stops, who would rather take a bullet to save the life of another, who repeatedly have to face verbal, and at times physical confrontations with angry citizens or bad criminals, but yet, we still return to work the next day, strap on our bullet proof vests, and do what the Good Lord would want us to do to help others… Yes, there are many, many of us who still do what we’re supposed to do, and do a very decent job at it, without getting our feet and hands dirty and without compromising our integrity, honesty, values, just because we want a promotion or to be “in the car”…
    To those of you who see yourselves in what I said: Thank you for being honest and true to yourself.
    Good riddance to those on the other side… it’s about time all this exposed in the open. You can’t hide and sweep things under the rug anymore.

  • Is it true Helmold’s Mom personally met with Sheriff Baca when her son was a lieutenant and stated, “When are you going to promote my son to Captain?” What is the background on that story?

  • Re: Say What’s question –

    Both of Hellmold’s parents were employed by the LASD. His father was sworn and his mother a civilian employee. Neither had reputations of being “connected” as their son has become. The corruption under the current Sheriff and Undersheriff has nothing to do with his parents. Jim Hellmold is just one of a few percent of sworn employees who have paid-to-play. He’s the most extreme example, having been rocketed ahead and over more honorable, more qualified people who did not dirty their hands with campaign contributions to assist the consolidation of power for one evil little man.

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