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Citizen Complaints Against Sheriff's Dept. on Rise, ACLU Says

Law enforcement: Agency may have community relations problem, survey finds. But officials cite greater responsiveness to public.

September 11, 1997|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Citizen complaints against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department have steadily increased over the last few years, prompting concern that the department suffers from a "serious community relations problem," according to a report released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

"All modern law enforcement agencies today are working toward good community policing," said ACLU Executive Director Ramona Ripston. "These ties to the community are only possible when an agency has in place a complaint system that is responsive to its citizens."

Relying on data provided by the department, the civil rights group found that complaints from citizens against the department have increased from 2,048 in 1994 to 2,787 in 1996. Complicating matters, sheriff's officials last year stopped recording the race and age of those who file complaints, the ACLU report emphasized.

"From our experience, we know that young people and people of color are more often targeted by law enforcement agencies," Ripston said. "So it is necessary, we believe, to keep these kinds of statistics to be certain that every law enforcement agency is dealing with all people in the same way."

Responding to the report, Sheriff Sherman Block agreed that the department must rethink its policy of omitting age and race when taking complaints.

"This was done consciously in an effort to encourage people to come forward with their complaints," Block said. "Most of our citizen complaints are received over the phone. When someone is calling to make a complaint, and you ask their age and race, the reaction is, 'If I tell you I'm African American or Latino or so forth, my complaint will be put on the bottom of the pile.' This was done in an effort to try to remove this. . . . We are going to take another look at it."

Block said he views the increase in complaints as an indication that the department has in fact become more responsive to the concerns of the public.

"It is a result of what we have done over the last five years to make sure our complaint process is open and honest and responsible," Block said. "I believe it's because of our effort in that area, the total number of complaints has risen. It reflects that we are emphasizing 100% adherence to the requirement of documenting even minor complaints."

The ACLU report looked at the number of complaints generated by each of the 17 sheriff's stations and six jail facilities. According to the ACLU report, the sheriff's Lakewood station had the highest number of complaints over the three-year period, with more than five complaints filed for each deputy assigned to it during that time.

The upward trend is similar to that of the Los Angeles Police Department, where in a 12-month period ending in July, complaints increased more than 25% over the previous year. However, the number of complaints made annually against the LAPD is far less--about 400 in the last year--than those made against the Sheriff's Department.

The ACLU recommended that the Board of Supervisors and special counsel Merrick Bobb--retained by the board to study problems in the Sheriff's Department--launch an in-depth investigation.

Bobb agreed that the findings merit closer review.

"It's a provocative report and it contains a lot of information that does need to be analyzed, digested and sorted," Bobb said. "I will look with renewed interest on some of the statistics that they cite."

He echoed Block's sentiments that the increase in complaints may not necessarily indicate that something is awry.

"[The increase] indicates to me that there is a greater integrity in the citizen complaint process in the sense that people . . . have greater confidence in the objectivity of the investigation into the complaint," Bobb said. "If that's the case, it doesn't surprise me that more people are availing themselves of the complaint process, and therefore, that the number of complaints may be up."

Bobb said that it's important for the department to track the age and race of complainants.

"By doing that, the Sheriff's Department has put itself in a position where it is harder for it to demonstrate what I believe is true: There is no differential in terms of the way citizens complaints are treated according to the race and age of complainant," Bobb said. "I agree with the ACLU that the department should once again do its best to track race and age."

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