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Shake-up of O.C. jails is proposed

Acting sheriff wants to replace deputies in the scandal-plagued system with career correctional officers.

February 15, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer and H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writers

Orange County's acting Sheriff Jack Anderson on Thursday proposed pulling hundreds of deputies from the state's second-largest jail system and replacing them with career correctional officers.

The move, which would dramatically change the way Orange County jails are operated, would create a new career path in the Sheriff's Department: employees who are permanently assigned to the county jails. For decades, deputies have spent the initial portion of their careers -- sometimes eight years or longer -- in the jails before moving to patrol or other assignments.

The proposal comes amid a number of scandals -- and a grand jury investigation -- involving management of the jails. The county recently agreed to pay $600,000 to resolve a lawsuit filed by the family of John Chamberlain, an inmate who was beaten to death in 2006. The lawsuit alleged that a deputy falsely told an inmate that Chamberlain was in custody for child molestation, prompting inmates to attack him, and that deputies ignored Chamberlain's cries for help.

In January, The Times reported a second case in which a video showed Orange County deputies apparently hitting a prisoner on the head while he sat passively on a bench, then repeatedly shocking him with a Taser after he was handcuffed, even after the inmate had been strapped into a restraint chair.

A county grand jury has been hearing testimony about the department's management of the jails for several months, focusing particular attention on Chamberlain's death, according to several sources familiar with the investigation.

Anderson said his proposal was motivated entirely by the cost savings that could be achieved by replacing deputies with professional jailers, not allegations of misconduct within the jails. Because correctional officers will be paid about half of what deputies are paid, the proposal would save the county $26 million to $34 million per year, he said.

"How could you not support it? We're saving tens of millions of dollars a year," Anderson said.

Anderson can expect strong opposition to his proposal from the deputies union.

"I challenge the acting sheriff to show how hiring less-qualified, less-trained personnel, and personnel with questionable backgrounds, will make our custody inmates safer and the surrounding communities safer," said Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. "Public safety is going to be negatively impacted. You get what you pay for. We've had some incidents in our jails, but overall our jails are among the safest in the country."

The Sheriff's Department deploys about 775 of its 1,900 sworn deputies in its jails, which hold roughly 6,400 inmates. Only Los Angeles County has a higher inmate population.

If the Orange County Board of Supervisors approves the proposal, the department could begin hiring the first correctional deputies within six months, Anderson said. The department would for several years hire only lower-paid correctional officers, who would replace the deputies as they moved to patrol and other assignments, Anderson said.

The idea has worked in San Diego and Riverside counties, Anderson said. He said he'd assembled a committee to study how the transitions were done in those counties. The challenge for the department will be finding quality recruits willing to work for salaries far less than deputies are paid, he said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach said he had grown concerned about allegations of misconduct by sheriff's personnel in the jails. Supervisors recently voted to create an Office of Independent Review, which would monitor investigations of alleged misconduct by deputies.

"As we go through the process of picking a new sheriff, I think the winning candidate should be prepared to make some cultural changes in the jail," Moorlach said. "The Chamberlain case shows something different has to be done."

He said Anderson's proposal made sense, in part because it would mean that the jails would be staffed with employees who wanted to be there, rather than with deputies waiting years for patrol assignments.

The use of correctional officers has worked well in San Diego and Riverside, officials in those counties said. Sheriff's departments in those counties have used correctional officers for 20 years or more.

Lt. Phil Brust, a San Diego County sheriff's spokesman, said correctional officers go through a three-month detention academy as opposed to the six-month program for patrol deputies.

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department has used correctional officers for 28 years, said spokesman Sgt. Dennis Gutierrez. He noted, however, that 30% of the jails' staff are deputies, who spend about three years on jail duty before transferring to patrol. The academy training for correctional officers is geared toward running the jails.

Orange County is in the midst of a nationwide search to hire a replacement for former Sheriff Michael S. Carona, who resigned in January while awaiting a federal corruption trial. Anderson is serving as interim sheriff until the Board of Supervisors appoints Carona's successor.

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

hgreza@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Christine Hanley contributed to this report.

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