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Baca says he was out of touch with county's jails

The Los Angeles County sheriff said he failed to implement important reforms that could have minimized brutality. He also said his command staff has at times left him in the dark about jail conditions.

October 16, 2011|By Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

Baca now says that some deputies are prone to using excessive force and that he is reconsidering proposals he had long rejected. One area that might be changed is the department's practice of starting rookies in the jails, which critics say can teach young deputies to treat everyone like criminals. Baca now says it is worth considering a two-track career system as a way to develop a core of veteran, experienced jailers who genuinely want to work in custody.

At 4 a.m. on a recent morning at home, Baca crafted what he called a force prevention policy, which he scrawled on the back of 10 junk mail envelopes. The sheriff said it is an important part of trying to change the culture within his jails.

Baca repeatedly told The Times that he deserves the blame for the jails' problems. But he also didn't hesitate to point the finger at his command staff.

"I think the younger deputies are not prepared to use sensible force in certain situations. Is it their fault alone? No. Is it my fault? Yes," Baca told The Times. "But my accountability is diffused within the chain of command to those that I entrust to do this job of managing deputy behavior."

Baca expressed regret that he hadn't instituted regular floor assignment rotations at Men's Central Jail earlier, a reform that watchdogs say would reduce the possibility of deputies forming gang-like groups in the jail.

A proposal to begin the rotations was panned before it reached his desk, he said. It wasn't revived until after The Times began reporting on a group of deputies who were identified as members of a clique that had formed on the lockup's third floor. The deputies were accused of assaulting three fellow deputies last year at an employee Christmas party.

"That one flew over my head," Baca said of the rotation plan. "No one told me it was a way to get rid of the cliques."

Some serious brutality complaints also never reached him, he said. Earlier this year, a chaplain who in 2009 reported seeing three deputies beat an unresisting inmate approached Baca to discuss the outcome of the investigation. He was surprised to learn that the sheriff had never heard of the incident.

"This happened two years ago," Baca said to his executive staff, according to two people in the room, "and I'm only finding out about it now?"

And he said he was taken by surprise when the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California publicly accused deputies of systematic abuse and called for his resignation.

Baca faulted the ACLU, a court-appointed monitor of jailhouse conditions, for not reporting allegations of abuse to his department directly. But he admitted that he should have reached out sooner to the civil rights organization to understand its concerns.

"I got my butt beat by the ACLU pretty good, and I deserved it," Baca said. "The key is, I got the message."

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

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