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Jail deputies abused inmates, witnesses tell L.A. County panel

Clergy members and jail monitors describe a culture of violence against prisoners, noting that conditions have improved in the last few months since video cameras were installed.

April 17, 2012|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Religious officials said that in recent months, management and conditions at the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles have improved vastly.
Religious officials said that in recent months, management and conditions… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

A Los Angeles County commission investigating jail abuse heard tearful testimony Monday from clergy and civilian monitors who worked in the lockups and said they witnessed deputies assaulting inmates and bullying witnesses to keep quiet.

One jail monitor broke down as she recounted being intimidated by a deputy whom she said saw beat an unconscious inmate. A weeping jail chaplain described deputies calling him a rat after he reported another beating. In one case, a clergy member said he was told by gang member inmates that jailers had targeted them in retribution for the slaying of a deputy by members of their gang on the outside. When the deputy's widow heard the allegations, the chaplain said, she showed up at the jail and told the deputies they disgraced her husband's memory.

The commission was created by the Board of Supervisors soon after news broke last year that the FBI was investigating allegations of inmate abuse and other jailer misconduct. The panel's investigation is loosely modeled on that of the landmark Christopher Commission, which recommended sweeping reforms of the Los Angeles Police Department after the 1991 beating of Rodney King.

On Monday, the commission's lead attorney revealed that after protests from the deputies' union, the commission would no longer be getting unfettered access to disciplinary records. Instead, the commission is expected to receive data that identifies deputies not by name but unique numbers, so that potential problem jailers can be identified.

One commissioner expressed concern that the concession might "impair" the investigation, but the commission's director downplayed the restrictions, saying that its aim is rooting out systemic problems not going after individual deputies.

Among those who spoke before the commission was former American Civil Liberties Union jail monitor Mary Tiedeman, who wept as she told the panel she resigned her post after becoming fed up with the department's inaction despite all the allegations of abuse she was gathering.

Many of the speakers emphasized how strong an impact the captain at Men's Central Jail can have on jailer culture. Retired Cmdr. Robert Olmsted, who last year told The Times of his attempts to warn sheriff's officials about abuse, was praised by civilian monitors and clergy for being tough on deputies. His successor, Capt. Daniel Cruz, who was placed on leave after an investigation of his tenure was launched, was blamed by witnesses Monday for loosening the reins on problem deputies.

Tiedeman testified that top sheriff's officials told her they were aware of Cruz's mismanagement, but said that it was difficult to correct his actions because of internal politics. In February, The Times reported that Olmsted said he had tried to give Cruz a lackluster performance review, but his report was altered by a top sheriff's official and Cruz was protected.

Father George Horan testified that when Olmsted was promoted out of the jail, some deputies were relieved to be freed from his watch. Soon after, a graveyard-themed jailhouse mural was vandalized, with someone scrawling "Olmsted RIP" on an image of a tombstone.

Horan said some deputies on the 3000 floor grew overly aggressive and cliquish until the problem came to a head in 2010, when deputies from the floor got into a brawl with fellow jailers at a department Christmas party. He said deputies on that floor hassled a fellow jailer, who had a reputation of being respectful with inmates, so much that the deputy asked for a transfer. He was being called names like "Deputy Love," Horan said.

Horan also recounted the violent cell extraction of Latino gang members after the killing of Deputy Abel Escalante. He said multiple inmates told him that during the extraction, deputies announced it was revenge against the gang for killing Escalante. He said that when word of those allegations reached Escalante's wife, a member of Horan's parish, she was outraged and appeared at the jail to chastise the deputies.

Sister Patty Bartlett, who also works in the jails, testified that she has heard multiple allegations of abuse from inmates, including some who told her deputies intentionally open jailhouse gates separating rival inmates to encourage fights.

Horan and Bartlett said that in recent months, management and conditions at the Men's Central Jail have improved vastly. Horan said the new cameras that were installed amid scrutiny of jail abuse have allowed deputies to no longer feel conflicted about covering up on behalf of their "comrades" because the misconduct probably will be caught on video.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department supports the commission's work.

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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