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Jail violence commission grills LA sheriff, undersheriff

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca faced sharp questioning from the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence Friday about inmate abuse by his deputies.

The panel’s chief lawyer Richard Drooyan pointed out that annual reports for eight years indicated a “significant spike” in use of force against inmates at Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A. He asked why the sheriff failed to address the increase.

Baca offered varying responses, as more than 100 uniformed deputies and commanders sat in the audience at the County Hall of Administration.

“Use of force statistics only tell you so much,” he said. Later, he added that subordinates failed to inform him about misconduct and “let me down.”

At one point, the sheriff wanted to move on from the subject. “There are limits to digging up dirt," he said. “We know we screwed up in the past.”

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors created the panel after the FBI launched an investigation into allegations of widespread abuse of inmates. The ACLU has collected more than 100 declarations from inmates who say deputies beat them up.

Before Baca testified, the sheriff’s little-known but powerful second-in-command endured four hours of grilling about his role at the jails.

Undersheriff Paul Tanaka offered testy denials when confronted with previous testimony from jail captains who said they warned him that deputies were engaging in excessive use of force.

“That’s a fictional account,” he said. “No one brought it to my attention.” Tanaka oversaw the jails from 2005-2007.

He said he could not remember a number of meetings described by other Sheriff’s officials in which Tanaka was presented information about misconduct.

“I was astounded that you didn’t know,” said former federal judge Dick Tevrizian, who sits on the panel. “It seems like everybody buried their head in sand.”

The undersheriff addressed a litany of complaints against him. Tanaka denied that he encouraged misconduct by telling deputies to operate in the “gray area.” He said he never intended to undermine an internal affairs investigations into misconduct — despite criticizing those investigations.

Tanaka said any criticism of him came from subordinates who had “personal agendas.”

Baca backed up his undersheriff and reacted strongly when asked why he hasn’t done more to hold his senior staff accountable for festering misconduct at the jails.

“You’re not going to tell me how to discipline my people,” he said.

Use of force has declined at the jails in recent months as Baca has paid more attention to his lockups. He’s written new use of force policies and installed new management at Men’s Central Jail that reports directly to him — not Tanaka.

“When the day is done… I’m to blame,” Baca said as he wrapped up his comments.

Drooyan asked how the sheriff should be held accountable.

“Don’t elect me,” said the four-term sheriff.

The room erupted in laughter.

The commission is expected to issue recommendations for jail reform later this year.