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Report Cites Coercion of Jail Inmates by Deputies

May 05, 1987|TED ROHRLICH | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies regularly conducted improper "search-and-destroy missions" at the 5,000-inmate Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho in Castaic in 1985, forcing inmates to wait outside their barracks, sometimes without jackets in cold weather, while they destroyed inmates' property and county-owned bedding, a Civil Service hearing officer has found.

The deputies were ostensibly searching for contraband, the hearing officer said. But they also were "adjusting attitudes"--coercing cooperation--of prisoners as they destroyed inmates' letters, scattered and mixed inmates' belongings and ripped mattresses and pillowcases.

Several deputies said supervisors were aware of these "missions," Hearing Officer Karen Orren said in her March 8 report, which was filed as a matter of public record and was reviewed by a reporter on Monday.

"Apparently there has recently been a curbing of this practice," she added.

Sheriff's Department spokesmen said they were reading the report and would issue a statement today.

Orren's report, the result of 12 days of hearings over the firing of a deputy, mentioned numerous other "pranks" and practical jokes by deputies at the combined medium- and maximum-security jail.

These ranged from deputies making "racial remarks" over the loudspeaker system to deputies pelting one another with oranges nightly, throwing one another in a pool and raising revolvers to one another in greetings when their cars passed on roadways.

Orren said there was "a strict code (among deputies) of not 'snitching' or 'ratting' on other deputies."

"Deputy after deputy testified to their knowledge of 'search-and-destroy missions,' " Orren wrote. "Several deputies said they were confident sergeants were aware of its going on--that sergeants stood outside of the barracks while it was happening."

The hearing officer said that "a single telling piece of evidence about the camp environment" was a disapproving memorandum that a Sheriff's Department captain addressed to all personnel at the county's second largest jail in late 1985.

"It has become increasingly clear that some members of this command persist in the practice of initiating harmful, malicious and dangerous practical jokes," the memo said. "I am also aware that the practice of initiations and hazing for newly assigned and transferring personnel has become part of 'the tradition' (here)."

The hearing officer's report focused on the case of a deputy at the jail who had achieved a reputation as an "arch practical joker."

The deputy, Brent P. Talmo, was fired by the Sheriff's Department last year for a series of pranks that included placing Styrofoam cups in the gas tank of a jeep; squirting prisoners with a water hose; discharging a fire extinguisher in a briefing room; covertly placing a dead gopher in the pocket of a prisoner, then lying to his supervisor about it; asking another deputy to lie about it, and displaying his revolver on a freeway to greet another deputy.

Orren concluded, after a hearing on Talmo's appeal of his discharge, that Talmo had indeed done those things and that he had also turned over the bunk of a sleeping inmate, causing him to fall and break his nose.

However, she concluded, firing was too severe a punishment, particularly in light of the nature of the "working environment" and "culture" at the jail, at which Talmo was "joked about in briefings . . . (and) enjoyed a certain popularity."

Noting that at least one deputy, and sometimes several, had observed Talmo's conduct in every instance but had not reported it, Orren recommended that the county Civil Service Commission suspend Talmo for 90 days.

The commission last month endorsed her findings and gave the Sheriff's Department until Thursday to object to the reduced punishment, if it chooses.

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