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Sheriff's staff raised red flags about jail brutality 2 years ago

Reports tell of misconduct and shoddy investigations. One audited more than 100 violent encounters with inmates and found that deputies crafted narratives 'dramatized to justify' force.

October 29, 2011|By Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Confidential Sheriffs Department memos focused on force at Mens Central Jail, an aging downtown Los Angeles facility that Sheriff Lee Baca has said should be torn down and replaced.
Confidential Sheriffs Department memos focused on force at Mens Central… (Damian Dovarganes, Associated…)

Nearly two years before Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged that jailer brutality was a problem, his command staff raised alarms about excessive force used on inmates in the nation's largest jail system, according to confidential memos reviewed by The Times.

The documents contain disturbing evidence of misconduct in the jails, including cases in which deputies used unnecessary force, then escaped punishment because of shoddy investigations by supervisors.

One of the reports audited more than 100 violent encounters with inmates and found that deputies crafted narratives "dramatized to justify" force. In some cases, the jailers purposely delayed using weapons that could end fights, like pepper spray and stun guns, "to dispense appropriate jailhouse 'justice,' " the report said.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

Authorities concluded that some confrontations were triggered by deputies who thought inmates had acted disrespectfully to them — showing "contempt of cop."

A second report found that significant inmate injuries were not documented by deputies or medical staff. The lapse is noteworthy because inmate allegations of excessive force have been dismissed when their documented injuries were not consistent with the force they said jailers used.

Among the most serious problems, according to the records, was the failure of supervisors to interview all witnesses and recommend discipline and training for problem deputies.

When supervisors did push for additional training for underperforming deputies, there was no guarantee it would be carried out. One of the reports cited a case in which a supervisor recommended that four jailers undergo more training, but only two did.

Lt. Mark McCorkle, the author of that report, expressed alarm over this lapse, saying that "it could be quite damaging to the department and expose us to unnecessary liability."

Public scrutiny of the county's jails has intensified since The Times reported in September that federal authorities are investigating reports of inmate abuse and other deputy misconduct. The U.S. attorney's office has demanded a large volume of documents on deputies and others working in the jails, including reports of force used on inmates, since 2009. The county Board of Supervisors has called for reforms and is setting up a commission to investigate the scope of the jails' problems.

After initially defending his department, Baca conceded in the last few weeks that a small percentage of deputies mistreated inmates.

But the internal records reviewed show more systemic problems with how force is used and investigated in the jails.

The warnings from top sheriff's officials echo similar allegations of excessive force and inadequate investigations now being leveled by department outsiders, including the sheriff's watchdog, individual inmates and civil liberties advocates.

Cmdr. James Hellmold, part of a task force recently assembled to implement jail reforms, said the memos never reached Baca's desk. He described the reports as useful but faulted them for not accounting for the large role he said inmates play in provoking the violence.

"The sheriff has acknowledged in part of his self-analysis that he needs to find out what the commanders have done, and what information they had at what time," Hellmold said. "The question for the department is where we go from here to strengthen our jails."

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the memos prompted the department to provide additional use-of-force training to jail managers. Sheriff's officials have disciplined more than 30 jailers in the last two years for beating inmates or covering up the abuse, according to the sheriff's watchdog.

The confidential sheriff's memos focused on force at Men's Central Jail, an aging downtown Los Angeles facility that Baca has said should be torn down and replaced. Inside the 5,000-inmate jail, deputies, including rookies fresh from the Sheriff's Academy, supervise some of the county's most dangerous inmates.

It's unclear from the records what prompted the audits or who ordered them. In the November 2009 report, McCorkle wrote that his conclusions were "by no means … an indictment of deputy personnel" and that the number of force incidents in the jail was down. But, he argued, "the veracity of force events needs to be examined."

In other cases, he did not attribute the force to intentional misconduct, but to poor training, assaults by violent inmates and a lack of proper equipment, like hobble restraints.

He pointed to deputies who were involved in fights over and over again as evidence that some jailers' manner of speaking to inmates "may play a role in inciting assaults."

"While in many instances the use of force was reasonable and justified, the events leading up to the incident were not," the report said.

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