Twenty-four-year-old Mitrice Richardson of South Los Angeles walked out of the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s station in the wee hours of Sept. 17 and has been missing ever since. Sheriff Lee Baca insists that deputies followed procedures to the letter: Richardson, who was accused of refusing to pay her bill at a high-end Malibu restaurant and possessing a small amount of marijuana, insisted on leaving after being booked and released, despite invitations to spend the night in an empty cell or in the station's lobby. Deputies at the station had declared her safe to go because she didn't appear to be a threat to herself or anyone else. Nevertheless, the fact remains that she was 40 miles from home in the dead of night with no purse, cash or cellphone, no buses available for hours, and her car locked in a garage she couldn't pay.
If that's following procedures to the letter, something's wrong with the procedures. Even if deputies acted as reasonably as Baca asserts, the implication is that the department's responsibility to "safely" release people it takes into custody ends the moment they leave its property.
That's certainly a pragmatic stance. As Baca’s report to the Board of Supervisors notes, deputies process 180,000 prisoners a year for release -- that's nearly 500 a day -- and detaining someone for too long carries "tremendous liability." Special steps are taken only for those "deemed to have medical or mental disabilities." But as Richardson's disappearance demonstrates, the department's blithe lack of concern about people after they walk out the door may be creating new and unnecessary dangers.