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2 Stations Led by Baca Known for Problems

Law enforcement: Sheriff-elect says reforms were blocked, vows to attack brutality, racism and sexism.

November 13, 1998|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County sheriff's stations with the worst records of police brutality, racism and resistance to female and black deputies were supervised for most of the past four years by the man who is soon to be responsible for all of the department's operations--Sheriff-elect Lee Baca.

As the regional supervisor responsible for the troubled Century and Lennox substations, Baca said, his efforts to make changes were frustrated by the department's bureaucracy.

Now, Baca says he will turn the tide of excessive force lawsuits, send women and blacks to Century, and undertake a 30-day investigation into the prevalence of racism in the jails and all 23 sheriff's stations. He would like to institute a new personnel system that judges deputies on their ability to work with female colleagues and those of other races. He already has proposed the appointment of a civilian inspector general.

"I want to straighten this out as quickly as I can," Baca said. "You've got to be a good internal watchdog. Because if we don't do it for ourselves, someone is going to come in and do it for us. We can definitely improve and cut down on the number of lawsuits."

Lawsuits and citizen complaints are considered an index of excessive force, just as police brutality is viewed as a trigger of riots and civil disturbance--two factors that make Lennox and Century, which police predominantly Latino and black areas of south-central Los Angeles County, a cause for concern.

According to the latest report by Merrick Bobb, who monitors the sheriff's progress on departmental reform for the Board of Supervisors, the Lennox and Century stations accounted for nearly 70% of the 70 pending misconduct lawsuits filed against the department in the first half of 1997. Incidents involving deputies at the two stations cost 60% of the $1 million the county paid to settle excessive force cases in the last half of 1996, the June report said.

Although the number of homicides and aggravated assaults in the area patrolled by the Century station is roughly the same as the Watts southeast division of the LAPD, the sheriff's deputies had more than three times the number of officer-involved shootings in 1996, according to the June report.

In post-Rodney King Los Angeles, "the shootings awakened concern about the increasingly serious problems of excessive and deadly force that were plaguing the Sheriff's Department," Bobb said.

Baca, who had no comment on the report when it was issued, now says he is in a position to address its concerns.

"I can command the solution as a sheriff that I could not command as a chief," he said.

Disbelief and Complaints

Joe Scott, campaign spokesman for the late Sheriff Sherman Block, disputed the contention that Baca's power was circumscribed when he supervised Lennox and Century.

"I find it hard to buy," he said. "It's hard to pass the buck. The question is, who is he blaming?"

Two lawsuits filed during the sheriff's runoff campaign underscore the types of complaints from citizens in the south-central section of the county.

Gardena shopkeeper Rafael Navarro says Lennox deputies insulted him with a racial slur and bashed his head through the wall of his store in front of his wife and daughters Sept. 3. He is suing for $100 million.

Dwayne Nelson died in the back of a Lennox deputy's patrol car a week later, restrained in a manner critics call hogtying--a practice prohibited by the Los Angeles Police Department because it can lead to asphyxiation. His family filed suit for $50 million.

Department spokesmen point out that litigation payouts have declined in recent years, from $17 million in fiscal 1995 to $3.7 million in 1996 and $1.6 million in 1997.

Earlier this year, however, the county was ordered to pay a breathtaking $23 million in damages for a lawsuit charging that deputies from the Lakewood station beat up a group of Samoan Americans at a 1989 bridal shower. The award, the largest ever assessed against an American law enforcement agency, was nearly six times what the city paid Rodney King.

A Warning for the Future

None of the 28 deputies sued has been disciplined by the department. Three of the 14 still on patrol have been promoted to sergeant, and others have become detectives and members of elite units--a state of affairs that civil rights experts say lends little credibility to the department's claims that it is serious about weeding out abusive deputies.

"That many deputies reacting so inappropriately should have been a clear signal that some deep cultural issues need resolving," said Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer who is the former regional director of the Los Angeles office of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People's legal defense fund.

"When you've got that level of denial, that's a very clear signal that that force can't change itself," she said.

Law enforcement and race relations experts repeatedly warn that perceived incidents of brutality have been a catalyst for civil unrest and riots, from Miami to Los Angeles.

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