Federal authorities have opened a civil rights probe into whether Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies have engaged in a pattern of abuse of inmates, according to a letter sent to county officials this week.
The so-called pattern or practice investigation marks a new level of scrutiny for the nation's largest jail system, which is the subject of an ongoing FBI criminal investigation into allegations of excessive force and other misconduct.
The letter, sent from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to the county on Thursday, said federal authorities opened the civil probe after becoming "increasingly concerned about use of force and alleged abuse by jail deputies and staff." The investigation will be conducted separately from the FBI's criminal probe, the letter said.
County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called the new probe "a very significant concern."
"This makes it clear that there is more work to be done and it is our responsibility to do it," Ridley-Thomas said.
At the same time, the Justice Department will also assess whether the Sheriff's Department has failed to adequately house and care for mentally ill inmates — an issue federal authorities first identified as a problem in 1997.
"A growing number of prisoners with serious mental illness continue to be housed in obsolete and dilapidated conditions at Men's Central Jail," the letter stated.
The letter was signed by Acting Assistant Atty. Gen. Jocelyn Samuels and U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr., who heads the department's Los Angeles-area office and is also overseeing the criminal investigation into the jails.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's spokesman, Steve Whitmore, said the Sheriff's Department would fully cooperate with the federal civil rights probe. He said the department has made significant reforms recently in an effort to deal with excessive force by jailers and is continuing to do so.
"We question the allegations of use of force," he said. "It is being tracked now like it's never been tracked before. Use of force is down by more than half."
Whitmore also noted that the letter acknowledged that the department had made "critical improvements in the delivery of mental health care at the jail" during the last decade.
He said Baca has long held that the mentally ill should not be housed in the jails but in other settings where they can be given proper care and the necessary psychotropic medication administered by specially trained mental health professionals.
Despite the improvements, federal authorities also said "significant problems remain." The Justice Department, for example, cited an increase in inmate suicides, including at least five this year.
The launch of the new probe comes just two months after federal authorities wrapped up another civil rights investigation into the Sheriff's Department —finding that deputies in the Antelope Valley harassed and intimidated blacks, Latinos and other residents. In that probe, federal officials did find a pattern of sheriff's deputies using unreasonable force, intimidation and "widespread" unlawful detentions and searches. Many of the findings involved residents who received low-income subsidized housing.
In their new civil rights probe, federal authorities could take a number of actions if they were to find a pattern of constitutional violations in the jails.
They could seek a consent decree in which the Justice Department and the county would agree to a set of reforms that a federal judge would approve and a court-appointed official would monitor. The Los Angeles Police Department operated under such a decree for about a decade after the Rampart corruption scandal. Law enforcement agencies typically bristle under that kind of burdensome, and sometimes prolonged, federal scrutiny.
Other, less burdensome settlements could involve formal legal arrangements in which the two sides agree on a set of reforms but could do so without a formal court-appointed monitor.
The county and federal authorities entered into such an agreement in 2002 after a Justice Department investigation found that conditions relating to mental health care in the county's jails violated the federal rights of prisoners, and jail staff abused mentally ill prisoners. Justice officials will be examining if sheriff's officials have complied with that agreement.
The FBI's criminal probe of jailhouse misconduct has been ongoing since at least 2011 and is expected to be wrapped up by the end of the year. Even before the federal scrutiny, internal sheriff's memos showed that top supervisors were raising alarms about excessive force as far back as 2009. One audit of more than 100 violent encounters with inmates found that deputies crafted narratives "dramatized to justify" force. In some cases, jailers purposely delayed using weapons that could end fights, like pepper spray and stun guns, "to dispense appropriate jailhouse 'justice,'" the report said.
Last year, a blue-ribbon county commission concluded that Baca and his top assistants had fostered a culture in which deputies were permitted to beat and humiliate inmates, cover up misconduct and form aggressive deputy cliques.