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D.A. Clears Deputies in Jail Melee

The dozens who broke up an inmate protest a year ago did not use excessive force, the office says. Inmates' lawyers told a different story.

November 14, 2000|JACK LEONARD | Times Staff Writer

Dozens of Orange County sheriff's deputies accused of using excessive force while breaking up a jailhouse protest last year will not face criminal charges, prosecutors announced Monday.

The Thanksgiving weekend disturbance, which involved 48 inmates and 30 deputies, is considered one of the most serious incidents at the jail in several years and prompted a $5-million brutality lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department.

But officials with the district attorney's office, after reviewing video footage of the disturbance and audio tapes from interviews with dozens of inmates, said they concluded that deputies acted properly during the melee.

"They used commendable, professional restraint in handling the situation," Deputy Dist. Atty. Ebrahim Baytieh said. "They gave inmates at least four different warnings, telling them that their conduct was becoming a safety and risk concern."

Officials overseeing the jail welcomed the announcement, which comes as conditions in the county facility face renewed scrutiny after accusations of abuse by deputies.

In September, the Orange County Grand Jury began probing allegations that at least two deputies repeatedly kicked an inmate last year at the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana.

And two weeks ago, an attorney involved in the landmark court order limiting overcrowding in the jail system filed a memo to a federal judge complaining that some inmates are victims of abuse.

Sheriff's officials, however, defended conditions in the county's five jails--among the most crowded in the nation--saying that deputies use only reasonable force to quell disturbances.

"The bottom line is that we do not want to have incidents in the jail," Assistant Sheriff Rocky Hewitt said. "But when they do occur, we have to take the jail back."

The Nov. 27, 1999, disturbance was triggered when inmates in the Central Men's Jail returned to module B, sector 9 after recreation and discovered that their cells had been searched for weapons and drugs. Angry that toilet paper and other items had been seized, the inmates covered their cells with blankets to prevent deputies from watching them.

Sheriff's officials said they tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the protesters. Some inmates smashed toilets and other objects in their cells, officials said.

After more than an hour, jail supervisors called in a special team of deputies, clad in riot gear and armed with batons and pepper spray, to remove the inmates. Three deputies suffered minor cuts and bruises during the clashes, they said.

But attorneys representing the inmates said their clients were cooperating when they were kicked and beaten by deputies. About a dozen inmates, they said, required hospital treatment for injuries.

"Inmates fully cooperated and were down on their stomachs with their hands behind their backs," said attorney Jonathan Slipp, who filed a civil claim in February. "How did these inmates end up all bloody and in the hospital if the deputies used such restraint?"

Slipp said he was not surprised that officers will not face criminal charges, noting that prosecutors relied on an investigation conducted by sheriff's deputies to make their decision.

In April, prosecutors filed misdemeanor charges against 13 of the inmates involved in the disturbance, accusing them of inciting a riot, defense attorney Scott Well said. Trial is set for Dec. 6.

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