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Sheriff's Dept. inquiries about inmate abuse found to be shoddy

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department internal watchdog finds inadequate investigations into cases of alleged abuse by deputies made it difficult to determine whether inmates' allegations were valid.

October 30, 2013|By James Barragan

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department failed to thoroughly investigate allegations from inmates who said they were physically abused by deputies, according to an analysis of 31 cases by the department's internal watchdog.

In a 145-page report, the Office of Independent Review said the department's shoddy initial investigations made it difficult to determine whether the inmates' allegations were valid. The watchdog launched its review of the handling of the cases after the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011 released sworn declarations from 78 inmates who alleged they were abused.

After the ACLU made the declarations public, Sheriff Lee Baca promised to reinvestigate the complaints. That review has led to three deputies being criminally charged: one on suspicion of assault and two others suspected of making false reports. Five deputies have been disciplined for violating policy in other cases. Some of the allegations remain under review.

The Office of Independent Review, which is headed by former federal prosecutor Michael Gennaco, said the department's effort to reevaluate the allegations was undermined by the inadequate investigations that occurred when the inmates initially complained to authorities. Most of their allegations were dismissed at the time.

The watchdog's report, which was released this week, comes as federal authorities continue to investigate alleged deputy abuse of inmates. Currently, criminal and civil rights investigations of the county jails are being conducted.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department will analyze the watchdog's report to see whether improvements can be made. But he defended the department's initial investigations into the allegations, saying they were thorough.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the watchdog's report highlighting problems with Sheriff's Department investigations was consistent with what his organization has been saying for years. He also questioned why the sheriff's watchdog hadn't identified problems with those investigations earlier.

"What does that say about the oversight of the OIR?" Eliasberg asked.

Gennaco said the allegations of abuse — with "mid-level injuries" — didn't rise to the level that his office typically reviewed. He said his office now does review such cases.

In other reforms, Gennaco said, the department has changed the way it handles use of force investigations in the lockups. A team of sergeants and lieutenants now oversees cases involving force and presents its findings to a commander's panel that convenes to discuss the case. Supervisors have also started receiving daily reports on incidents involving force to help monitor how force is used in the jails.

Another reform, the report said, has been the installation of 1,500 cameras in the downtown jails. Ninety percent of force used in those jails is now caught on camera, according to the report.

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