One morning last December, in the booking section of Orange County Jail, a man who had been arrested after a hit-and-run accident began shouting angrily while he was being fingerprinted.
One of the sheriff's deputies who operate the jail grabbed the man's shoulder from behind and spun him around. "I asked him if he had a problem," the deputy later wrote in his report.
"Yeah, I have a (expletive) problem," the man responded, waving his arm about.
The deputy quickly applied a "rear wristlock"--forcing the man's left arm behind his back and up toward his shoulders. "I also put my left arm around his neck in a carotid hold position, without applying pressure," the deputy wrote.
In about 10 seconds, the man went limp in the deputy's arms and fell to the floor, apparently unconscious.
That brief explosion of violence was one of 17 incidents in County Jail that consultant Lawrence G. Grossman described as a "possible excessive use of force" in a study submitted to the county earlier this year. Already, that study has led to some changes in policy and procedures at the jail.
Under the California Public Records Act, The Times recently obtained copies of the reports written by the deputies involved in the incidents singled out by Grossman, with all names deleted because of privacy considerations raised by the Sheriff's Department.
The reports provide a rare glimpse at the tension and violence of everyday life behind bars--a highly charged and antagonistic environment in which, authorities acknowledge, officers sometimes overreact.
While no single lesson is evident, some patterns do emerge:
- Seven of the incidents occurred in the booking area of the jail, the most dangerous area in the county's entire system of incarceration. In the booking area, an inmate is especially volatile because his freedom has suddenly been snatched away, Grossman and other experts on jail behavior said. And many individuals being booked are still under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Seven of the incidents started when deputies were struck by inmates. But even when the inmate strikes first, the experts sometimes hold the deputy responsible because he unnecessarily created a hazardous situation. "If an inmate says he's going to punch you if you take his cuffs off, don't take his cuffs off," said Thomas F. Lonergan, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputy who prepared a report for the county grand jury based on a review of the 17 incidents flagged by Grossman.
- Injuries to inmates, mostly cuts or scratches, were reported in 13 of the 17 incidents. In only one incident did a deputy report any injuries. Thirteen of the incidents also involved a single inmate and more than one deputy.
- Two of the incidents involved violations of jail rules prohibiting food in jail cells, and all of the incidents involved defiant behavior by inmates.
Grossman, a former prison warden who once monitored jail conditions in Orange County for a federal judge, was paid $25,000 by the county to conduct a wide-ranging study. On the subject of excessive force, his study concluded that the incident reports alone do not indicate a problem with brutality in Orange County's jail system.
Nonetheless, the study has prompted serious efforts by the Sheriff's Department and the grand jury to come up with new ways to manage people in an atmosphere that is inherently volatile.
Grossman reviewed more than 1,000 incident reports, 88 of which involved fighting between deputies and inmates, that were written in a 3-month period. Only the 17 that he singled out raised concerns, he said. "This equates to about one such incident every 5.3 days in a facility housing 1,296 inmates," he said.
But both Grossman and Lonergan, the grand jury's consultant, recommended that the Sheriff's Department make a greater effort to train deputies in ways to defuse hostile situations and to be aware when they are contributing to an already charged atmosphere.
Assistant Sheriff John (Rocky) Hewitt said most of those recommendations are being implemented. Some that require more money or manpower--such as a special response team in the jail or additional video cameras--have been beyond the reach of the Sheriff's Department budget.
In response to the report, the department has adopted a new policy that will require a sergeant to be at the scene of every confrontation whenever possible. And ranking officers will play a larger role in the follow-up review of every incident, Hewitt said.
Several of the recommendations suggested new methods of training for in-service deputies as well as recruits. Hewitt said jail deputies recently completed a series of training classes on the use of force that stressed some of the concepts the county report suggested.