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Report Prompts Call for Civilian Review of Sheriff's Deputies

March 23, 1989|RICHARD A. SERRANO | Times Staff Writer

A stinging report from the San Diego County Grand Jury documenting assaults of jail inmates by deputies has sparked calls for the creation of a civilian review board to monitor the County Sheriff's Department.

Jim Butler, one of the inmates allegedly beaten in the County Jail in Vista, said he appeared before the Grand Jury on Wednesday and repeated the call for a review board.

'Human Weaknesses'

"I told them that, because of human weaknesses, it is necessary to have checks and balances with a police review board," he said. "And I told them that, if we don't have that, then power will continue to corrupt and we will have a police state."

The Grand Jury report, released Tuesday, lambasted the Sheriff's Department for its operation of the six county jails.

The panel found that inmates were frequently assaulted by deputies, that internal cover-ups were conducted to conceal those activities and that Sheriff John Duffy and his top leaders did not assert adequate leadership to investigate the allegations and stop the abuse.

Using the El Cajon jail as an example, the Grand Jury said a "Rambo Squad" of deputies roamed the jail and routinely assaulted and harassed inmates in conduct that was "totally reprehensible and inexcusable."

Duffy has been out of town this week and unavailable for comment.

His spokesman, Lt. Alan Fulmer, said the sheriff will hold a press conference soon to address the concerns in the 20-page report.

On the issue of a civilian review board for the department, Duffy has in the past said he is opposed to allowing his staff to be scrutinized by any outsiders. Instead, he has defended his in-house Internal Affairs Division as a capable unit for investigating misconduct.

Though the Grand Jury did not call for an independent civilian review board, the panel's report did conclude that the Internal Affairs Division is woefully understaffed and unable to properly ferret out misbehavior by deputies.

The report noted that the sheriff's Internal Affairs Division has one lieutenant and three sergeants for a department of 1,200 deputies, whereas the San Diego Police Department's counterpart has two lieutenants and 12 sergeants for a force of 1,700 officers.

The report also noted that the sheriff's unit recently had a 50% increase in its caseload. And, the report added, "the backlog is building."

In the last two years, the issue of civilian review has dogged the San Diego Police Department. One panel was created but then sharply criticized for being weak and ineffective. Now, officials are attempting to determine whether one or both of the two new proposals for a city review board should be carried out, as approved by voters in November.

John Crew, director of the Police Practices Project for the ACLU in Northern California, said that, though review boards are increasingly being established to oversee local police procedures in the state, he knows of no panels to monitor deputies in jail settings.

Some Reasons Why

Why?

"In the jail, it's a closed society," he said. "And the complainants are often considered less credible because they are inmates.

"And misconduct is difficult to prove when you're dealing with people incarcerated in jail. Witnesses will be less likely to speak up. And there is a built-in bias against people who are incarcerated."

For a review board monitoring jail activities to be successful, he said, the panel must be granted subpoena powers. It should also hold open public hearings, make final decisions on misconduct and decide whether discipline is warranted for errant officers.

Crew discounted common complaints by peace officers who argue that review boards are no good because civilians cannot be properly trained to study police practices.

"Come on," he said. "This is not brain surgery. Civilians already make decisions about water bonds and streets and sewers. So why should a police agency be an exclusion from democracy?"

Michael Crowley, a San Diego attorney, helped set up a special telephone hot line for victims of jail abuse after the allegations began surfacing. And he said many of the victims who called the hot line have expressed frustrations because they feel as though no independent watchdog has monitored the Sheriff's Department.

"We have every indication that the abuse is continuing and has been non-stop," he said. "And now, we are demanding that, based on the Grand Jury's report, a review board be established."

Lack of Charges Noted

Tom Adler, another lawyer who has represented inmates allegedly beaten by deputies, said the frustrations have deepened because federal and state prosecutors have refused to file criminal charges against deputies.

"No one has been watching what's been happening in those jails," he said. "A handful of lawyers have filed lawsuits over brutality cases. Occasionally, the Grand Jury issues a report like this. But other than that, the U. S. attorney has turned his back on the problem, and the county district attorney doesn't want to get involved.

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