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ACLU sues L.A. County Sheriff's Department

The suit accuses department brass of failing to root out deputy brutality in jails.

January 19, 2012|By Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Wednesday, accusing Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department brass of failing to root out deputy brutality inside the county's jails.

The lawsuit details multiple allegations of inmate abuse and alleges Sheriff Lee Baca and his top executives are "aware of the culture of deputy violence that pervades the Jails but have failed to take reasonable measures to remedy the problem." The ACLU is a court-appointed monitor of jailhouse conditions.

Accusations of deputy brutality in the jails have been common for years but are difficult to substantiate without more evidence. The FBI is investigating allegations of abuse and other deputy misconduct inside the jails.

The ACLU lawsuit aims to get the Sheriff's Department to provide better training for deputies to prevent force, more thorough investigation of force incidents and appropriate discipline of misconduct.

The suit also alleges that deputies are poorly trained in dealing with mentally ill inmates and that jailers have formed "gangs."

"Like members of street gangs, these deputies sport tattoos to signal their gang membership," the ACLU alleges. "They beat up inmates to gain prestige among their peers, and 'earn their ink' by breaking inmates' bones."

In an interview with The Times, a recently retired jails commander also said that deputies had formed cliques inside Men's Central Jail and that some guards earned respect from veteran members of those cliques by using excessive force.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore disputed the ACLU's allegations, saying the department has implemented a variety of reforms that have helped reduce the number of force incidents in the jails.

"There is no gang mentality among the deputies," Whitmore said. "The deputies come to work every day to keep those jails safe and sound for everybody."

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the Sheriff's Department only recently provided his organization with a full policy on using force inside the jails. He complained the policy lacks details and helpful scenario-based instructions for deputies.

"Their force policies are a joke," he said. "They might as well not have any."

At a news conference Wednesday, however, ACLU staffers backed away from their call last year for Baca to resign, saying he had become receptive to jail reforms. Reasserting their call for his ouster, they said, would be a distraction.

The ACLU lawsuit refers to several issues reported recently in The Times. In it, the ACLU accuses Baca of failing to shake up his executive staff despite receiving warnings of brutality inside the jails.

Former jails Cmdr. Robert Olmsted told The Times that he had warned executives about excessive force and shoddy investigations but was told that the jail culture couldn't be changed. One executive denied making such a comment.

The lawsuit also refers to allegations in The Times by a former top sheriff's rookie who resigned from his jail post after alleging that his supervisor made him beat up a mentally disabled inmate and then cover it up.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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