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Sheriff moves to fire six deputies accused in beating

March 22, 2011|By Robert Faturechi | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has begun termination proceedings against six deputies who were part of what officials describe as an aggressive group that used ganglike hand signals to identify themselves and allegedly assaulted two fellow deputies at a Christmas party last year.

The firing of six deputies marks one of the largest disciplinary actions in the department's history, officials said.

The deputies worked on the third floor of Men's Central Jail, where they allegedly were part of a clique that had certain ganglike characteristics, including three-finger hand signs, representing the third floor.

Officials are looking at whether members of the group displayed hand signs before they allegedly assaulted deputies assigned elsewhere at the jail. Authorities said the group bonded while working together at the jail and that they are aware of no ties to outside street gangs.

The group's hand sign is said to be formed with outstretched pinky, ring and middle fingers, though it could vary, said Michael Gennaco, who heads up the sheriff's watchdog agency.

In addition to the termination proceedings against the six men, the department is considering reforms in jail assignments, such as more regular rotations to keep deputies from forming similar cliques.

Public records obtained by The Times show that deputies assigned to that floor of the jail had a higher number of use-of-force incidents against inmates during a recent four-year period than those assigned to any other floor at the downtown Los Angeles facility.

Records show that between 2006 and 2010, the third floor recorded 437 use-of-force incidents, with the next closest floors reporting 426 and 226.

Gennaco said the frequency of force on the third floor did not necessarily mean that the force there was excessive because the floor houses a "certain pedigree of inmates," largely those with more violent histories.

Whether the existence of a clique was known by sheriff's supervisors before this incident is being investigated.

The investigation into the men arose from a six-on-two assault that broke out last December outside a Montebello banquet hall where a Christmas party for jail employees was being hosted.

Throughout the night, deputies on the third floor were being hassled about moving inmates slowly at the jail. As the night wound down, one of the two deputies who was assaulted apparently called out to the group of six, again calling them slow.

The six deputies allegedly rushed that deputy and another standing nearby, and began punching and kicking them. A female deputy who tried to break up the assault was punched in the face. Gennaco said several of the men had been drinking.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore declined to name the deputies, citing personnel constraints. A seventh deputy who was placed on leave after the incident was not fired because of insufficient evidence against him.

Whitmore said the investigation into the men was thorough and included 180 interviews. Prosecutors are reviewing possible criminal charges in connection with the incident. "The department chose not to wait for that," Gennaco said. "We have never seen this many deputies disciplined so severely in the 10 years we've been here over one incident. It's unprecedented."

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