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Probes of jail deaths have dragged out, report finds

An oversight committee criticizes the Sheriff's Department, saying the delays could have subverted reforms to improve inmate safety.

December 07, 2006|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has dragged its feet on investigations of inmate deaths in county jails, delaying cases sometimes for two years or more, a department oversight committee reported Wednesday.

The protracted investigations could have compromised the department's ability to discipline deputies or medical staff and could have subverted reforms to improve inmate safety, the panel added.

Although the department has recently speeded up the rate at which it reviews in-custody deaths, the delays in dozens of cases are troublesome and reduced the impact of the investigations, said Michael Gennaco, chief of the sheriff's Office of Independent Review. Gennaco's findings were included in his annual review of the Sheriff's Department and its policies relating to discipline and training, among other issues.

More than 300 inmates died while in custody at Los Angeles County jail facilities between 1997 and 2005 from natural causes, suicides and homicides. Under state law, the Sheriff's Department is required to review deaths to learn if any policies should be changed to improve safety or medical care in its jails. Those reviews can also reveal misconduct by deputies or medical staff, Gennaco added, and the delays make such discoveries much more difficult.

The department took an average of more than a year to review deaths that occurred in county jails during the first nine months of 2005, with many reviews taking more than 500 days, according to the report released Wednesday by Gennaco's group. The inquiry into one death in 2003 took 974 days to complete.

The Office of Independent Review, created five years ago at the urging of Sheriff Lee Baca, monitors internal affairs investigations and makes recommendations to the department about policy and training issues.

Gennaco said he expressed his concerns about the delayed death reviews to Baca several weeks ago and that the department has started to increase the speed of such inquiries. Gennaco said he was encouraged by the improvement but added, "The department never should have put themselves in the position they put themselves in."

"I don't care what they're doing," he said. "If they're doing it 2 1/2 years later, it's not going to be meaningful."

One result, he added, is that some of the investigations lacked depth and quality.

Steve Whitmore, a Sheriff's Department spokesman, said the department will work with Gennaco and his staff to improve the speed and quality of the inquiries.

The sheriff shares the Office of Independent Review's "concerns, as does the custody division. They've begun to catch up on the backlog," Whitmore said. "What has to be done is a redesign of the process. It has to be done faster, but it still has to be comprehensive."

State law requires the department to assemble deputies and medical staff to review all jail deaths "to alert the medical delivery system to any weaknesses or failures on its part." Among the areas the reviews are required to address is whether medical staff treated inmates before their deaths and what the treatment entailed.

In addition to concerns about the delays, the report explored such matters as discipline of deputies who violated department policy. The document praised sheriff's executives for changing a decades-old policy that allowed deputies involved in shootings to huddle together with attorneys before making statements about the shootings to investigators.

Gennaco said his staff was concerned that the old policy could create the appearance that deputies were getting their stories straight before meeting with department investigators. But he said there was no evidence that deputies had used the opportunity to meet after a shooting to fabricate statements or cover up misconduct.

The union that represents the more than 8,000 sworn sheriff's deputies has sued the department, seeking to overturn the new policy.

Steve Remige, union president, said the old policy was in effect for 20 years with no evidence of collusion or other problems surfacing during investigations.

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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