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Complaints about deputies not handled quickly, report says

Independent monitor says major L.A. County sheriff's stations took 101 days on average to forward complaints to headquarters. In general, though, complaints were investigated thoroughly, he says.

May 08, 2012|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • The report by special counsel Merrick Bobb, shown, echoed Sheriff Lee Baca's assertion that problems in L.A. County jails festered because Baca's top managers insulated him from bad news. Bobb warned Baca that the sheriff should achieve "a delegation of authority, not an abdication of it."
The report by special counsel Merrick Bobb, shown, echoed Sheriff Lee Baca's… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

An independent monitor for the Los Angeles County sheriff has found shortcomings in the department's handling of complaints against deputies by members of the public, according to a report released Monday.

Specifically, a majority of the complaints filed in 2010 were not handled in a timely manner — with major stations taking 101 days on average to forward the complaints to headquarters. Department policy requires that it be done in 60 days. One complaint lingered for 659 days.

"A lack of promptness can communicate to the public that the Department is not concerned with responding to or vigorously investigating their complaints of deputy misconduct," according to the report. The lag also can date the department's personnel database, meant to detect problem deputies.

In general, however, Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors, found that complaints were investigated thoroughly, even when the people who complained provided scant specifics.

Bobb's analysis found that only in about 14% of cases were the inquiries faulty. In one case a man complained that a deputy refused to look at his medical marijuana card, but because the department could not determine who the deputy was, the deputy was exonerated rather than the probe resulting in an undetermined finding.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore acknowledged that "we can always do better," but added that overall the report was "very complimentary."

Bobb also waded into the sheriff's management of the jails, now the subject of an FBI probe examining allegations of abuse and other deputy misconduct. Bobb cited issues like "deputy gangs" forming in the jails, and some of the most inexperienced deputies watching over some of the jail's most hardened criminals.

The report echoed Sheriff Lee Baca's assertion that problems in the jails festered because his top managers insulated him from bad news. Bobb warned Baca that the sheriff should achieve "a delegation of authority, not an abdication of it."

Baca has "a warm and capacious heart," Bobb wrote, and can be trusted to address problems in the nation's largest jail system if he is aware of them.

At the same time, however, Bobb made note of retired Cmdr. Robert Olmsted, who told The Times that he tried to inform Baca about excessive force and deputy cliques but was ignored twice. Asked in an interview why he concluded Baca was insulated, even though one of his top executives said the sheriff ignored his warnings, Bobb said he could not explain the inconsistency.

Bobb raised the specter that a team of commanders Baca installed to reform the jails might not be reporting directly to the sheriff, as it's supposed to, because of loyalty to Baca's second in command, Paul Tanaka. The report, however, raises that issue only to discredit it, and says the task force has performed well.

The report also describes a captain who had been "trying to sound an alarm," an apparent allusion to former Men's Central Jail Capt. John Clark, who was blocked by Tanaka in his attempt several years ago to regularly move deputies around the jail. That is a solution some have said would have prevented deputy cliques.

Clark, however, has said under oath that the change was not meant to address deputy cliques or groups, which he didn't believe existed. Tanaka has said that he opposed the change because it would have disrupted hundreds of deputies for the sake of a few problematic ones, a move that would have faced serious opposition from the deputies' union.

Bobb added he has been pleased to see recent jailhouse force probes show "trend spotting for patterns and individuals.'

"Nonetheless, we saw cases where force was arguably avoidable or disproportionate," according to the report. "Control of excessive force in the jails remains a work in progress."

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