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Report Hails Sheriff's Reforms but Faults Jails

Law enforcement: Similar study found less progress at LAPD. Both agencies handle statistics badly, analyst says.


The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has made faster progress on some important reforms than the Los Angeles Police Department, but it shares a troubling problem with its local counterpart--a failure to compile and analyze some statistics accurately--according to a pair of recently completed reports with implications for the region's two most important law enforcement agencies.

"The [Sheriff's Department] lacked a solid basis for important statistics about jail riots and other disturbances, assaults and use of [pepper] spray in the L.A. County jails," states one of the reports, written by Los Angeles lawyer Merrick A. Bobb and scheduled for release Tuesday afternoon. "Many of the numbers were haphazardly gathered and thus not useful for either historical or current analysis. The unreliability of the data has profound implications for the ability of department executives to manage the jails."

That conclusion is one of the central findings in Bobb's sixth semiannual update on the progress of reform at the Sheriff's Department, a report that commends the department for steps it has taken in its patrol operations but that finds fault with the management and monitoring of its jails. The county jails, Bobb concludes bluntly, "are seriously troubled."

In his latest report, Bobb, who monitors reform for both the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department, does not specifically address the status of reform measures at the LAPD, which launched its efforts a year before the Sheriff's Department.

But Bobb completed a similar study of the LAPD in May, and that document--combined with the new report--offers a rare chance to compare comprehensively the strides taken by the two agencies over a five-year period dominated by public and political demands for local law enforcement reform.

Bobb's studies have found fault with both agencies' efforts. But in general they portray the Sheriff's Department, at least in its patrol operations, as doing a better job of embracing reforms. The sheriff's reform blueprint was drafted by the Kolts Commission in 1992.

The Christopher Commission performed a similar mission for the LAPD in 1991. In his May report, Bobb said the LAPD was moving in the right direction, but he criticized the pace of reform and wrote that "the LAPD could benefit from more focused, deft and efficient internal management."

According to Bobb's reports, sheriff's officials have done more to track potential problem officers and have successfully pushed down the exposure of county taxpayers in cases growing out of excessive-force complaints. Those reductions came even as the Sheriff's Department recorded a modest increase in arrests. Arrests at the LAPD, meanwhile, are down dramatically in recent years, though department figures for the past year are conflicting and may indicate a small recent uptick.

Diversity Issues

As the reports make clear, the LAPD is a more diverse department than the Sheriff's Department, but both agencies are struggling to move women and minorities into command positions and other coveted jobs.

Together, the Sheriff's Department and the LAPD oversee the vast area of Los Angeles County, with the Police Department's 9,000-plus officers handling law enforcement within the city's limits. More than 8,000 sheriff's deputies handle patrol duties in unincorporated parts of the county and in 39 incorporated cities. They also staff eight facilities that handle the county's huge inmate population.

In the area of collecting and analyzing data, both departments have shown significant weaknesses. At the Sheriff's Department, Bobb's report makes clear that information about life inside the jails is sometimes contradictory or incomplete. At the LAPD, officials are months behind in fulfilling a request by Mayor Richard Riordan for a report explaining why the department is arresting far fewer people than it did a few years ago.

Bobb's criticism of the Sheriff's Department, however, is mixed with praise for the response so far to the problem.

"The department has responded quickly, openly and in good faith to the data problems we have raised and has made substantial progress during August and early September in curing them," according to Bobb's report. "Serious problems remain, but we have every reason to believe that the department will continue to work on them."

Data Problems

Although Bobb's report does not specifically compare the sheriff's data issues to the similar problems facing LAPD, he elaborated in an interview and follow-up statement.

"Each agency has difficulty assembling basic data, the LAPD in a general way, due in part to it still being largely paper-driven and due in part to it not being more demanding of itself," Bobb said. "The [Sheriff's Department] has the problem in a more limited way, in its custody operations but not in patrol."

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