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Code of silence among jail guards hinders abuse probes, watchdog says

Deputies who report wrongdoing are sometimes subjected to retaliation by colleagues, according to the Office of Independent Review. The findings echo allegations made by civilians.

October 14, 2011|By Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • "People who are incarcerated in our jails in most cases deserve to be there," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "But they don't have to be a punching bag for our personnel."
"People who are incarcerated in our jails in most cases deserve to… (Damian Dovarganes, Associated…)

A code of silence among guards in Los Angeles County jails hinders investigations into abuse complaints, while deputies who report wrongdoing are sometimes subjected to retaliation by colleagues, according to the Sheriff's Department's watchdog.

One deputy received threatening phone calls describing him as a "rat" and telling him to watch his back after he reported that another deputy pushed an inmate into a glass window, the Office of Independent Review said in a report. In another case, eight deputies failed to report mistreatment of an inmate that was caught on video.

The Times published details from the report earlier this week. The document, which was publicly released Thursday, focuses on a dozen cases in which more than 30 jail employees were disciplined in connection with inmate abuse.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

"Many of these cases are provable only because deputies and sergeants came forward and violated the code of silence. That's not easy to do," said Michael Gennaco, who heads the Office of Independent Review.

Gennaco's findings echo allegations made by civilians, including a chaplain , who said deputies tried to intimidate him after he reported abuse.

Gennaco, who elaborated on his findings in an interview with The Times on Thursday, said he was concerned that some deputies mete out punishment as a type of informal discipline in the jails. In a case not included in the report, a deputy pushed an inmate into a wall, bloodying his nose, after the inmate was accused of stealing from the jail commissary, Gennaco said. The episode, he said, was captured on one of the few security cameras in Men's Central Jail.

In response to Gennaco's findings, Sheriff Lee Baca said: "I've always preached that you have to be careful when anyone in law enforcement says I didn't hear anything or I didn't see anything. You gotta challenge that."

On the same day Gennaco's report was publicly released, two county supervisors called for an independent commission to determine the scope of brutality by jail guards and to recommend how the county should respond.

The proposal is the county's boldest response so far to a growing number of allegations of inmate abuse and comes as the FBI investigates several cases of potential criminal misconduct by deputies.

Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas said that creating a five-member commission appointed by the Board of Supervisors would help restore public confidence in how the jails are run and provide a road map for reform.

"People who are incarcerated in our jails in most cases deserve to be there … but they don't have to be a punching bag for our personnel," Yaroslavsky said.

Ridley-Thomas said he wanted the panel to review how effective Gennaco and Merrick Bobb, the board's special counsel on sheriff's issues, have been over the years and whether the department has heeded their advice.

"It's abundantly clear that the Sheriff's Department needs a fresh pair of eyes to help it ensure the rights of the inmates," Ridley-Thomas said.

Baca said he would be supportive of the supervisors' plan as long as the commission's members were objective. The Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss the proposal, which requires three votes, at its weekly meeting Tuesday.

Supervisor Gloria Molina said she might support creating a commission but said the county needs a more aggressive approach. She said she was concerned that the Sheriff's Department has failed to make good on long-planned improvements to the jails, such as installing more cameras at Men's Central Jail.

The Board of Supervisors, Molina said, should require that the department implement all the jail-related recommendations Gennaco and Bobb have made over the years. Among them, she said: replacing deputies' heavy-duty flashlights — which can be used as weapons — with lighter models and requiring that jail guards wear boots without steel toes.

"I just don't think we necessarily need a commission or another group of people to tell us what is evident," she said. "I think it's about becoming much more aggressive with the sheriff."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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