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Baca tells skeptical supervisors of progress in jail reforms

L.A. County supervisors ask pointed questions and urge the sheriff to speed the pace of change.

November 02, 2011|By Jason Song, Los Angeles Times
  • Sheriff Lee Baca
Sheriff Lee Baca (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

Los Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday pointedly questioned Sheriff Lee Baca's attempts to reform the county's troubled jails.

Baca has been under criticism for his oversight of the nation's largest jail system following weeks of reports in The Times and other organizations outlining accusations of corruption and inmate abuse. The FBI is investigating accusations of jailer misconduct, and Baca has admitted he did a poor job of monitoring the situation.

County supervisors approved an outside oversight committee last month and ordered Baca to give them periodic updates. Sheriff's officials have also begun implementing changes recommended almost a year ago by a county attorney.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

On Tuesday, Baca reported progress in several areas, including installing more cameras in Men's Central Jail, prohibiting steel-toed shoes in jails, studying whether deputies should be able to strike inmates with flashlights and developing a team of sheriff's supervisors to review severe deputy-use-of-force incidents within 30 days.

But some supervisors seemed skeptical of the team's ability to quickly and fairly review incidents, given what they viewed as a slow pace of change.

"You have to understand, you've told me this before," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who repeatedly asked Baca if the task force could work quickly.

In some cases, it has taken jail officials up to two years to review reports of inmate abuse.

"We believe we can meet the deadline in 30 days; I don't know if I can say it any clearer than that," Baca said.

Molina also asked Baca several times if he thought it was acceptable for deputies to use their standard-issue flashlights as weapons. The sheriff repeatedly replied that they should be used only as a last resort after deputies had exhausted other options, including use of electric-shock Tasers and pepper spray.

Baca said that Sheriff's Department officials had installed 69 cameras in Men's Central Jail in an attempt to monitor the areas of highest risk. Department officials will save the videos for 30 days and hope to eventually keep more than two years worth of videos, although that could cost $4 million.

But supervisors and Baca agreed that installing cameras could prevent costly lawsuits in the future by creating a visual record of each deputy's actions.

An additional 300 cameras will be installed in Men's Central Jail and Twin Towers within five months, Baca said, but Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich urged faster action.

"Five months is an extended amount of time when the need for them was yesterday," Antonovich said.

Antonovich also criticized the practice of staffing the jails with inexperienced deputies who are just starting their careers with the department.

"You have a culture where deputies just out of the academy are running the show," Antonovich said.

After the meeting, Baca said his top command shielded him from reports of inmate abuse. A Times story earlier this week reported that top department commanders knew of allegations two years ago.

Baca said he has since corrected the problem but did not think any commanders should be disciplined.

"I don't see any dereliction of duty," Baca said.

The sheriff also said that the number of use-of-force incidents in jails had dropped to 17 in October, down from a high of 60 in January, and that he appreciated the supervisors' questions.

"Skepticism is a healthy commodity," Baca said.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

jason.song@latimes.com

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