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Sheriff Baca blamed for deputy-on-inmate jail violence; report calls it 'persistent'

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC file photo
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was heavily criticized for his management in the final report of the blue ribbon Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

An independent blue ribbon panel Friday issued a scathing report on Los Angeles County jails, saying there has been a “persistent pattern of unreasonable force” by Sheriff’s deputies against inmates. The report said the problem “dates back many years” and blamed Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff.

“Both Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff [Paul] Tanaka have, in different ways, enabled or failed to remediate overly aggressive deputy behavior as well as lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct.” (You can read the full report embedded below this story.)

The report follows nine months of investigation by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors created the panel after the FBI launched an investigation into deputy-on-inmate violence. That inquiry into dozens of reports of brutality continues.

During its investigation, the panel heard publicly and privately from former inmates, jail chaplains and even deputies who testified about beatings.

Baca has said he has begun to implement reforms, including replacing jail management and issuing a use-of-force policy. The report found those changes lacking.

“Notwithstanding the recent reforms, the Commission does not believe that the problem of excessive use of force in the jails has been fixed.”

The report singled out Tanaka for his role in allowing jail violence.

"Troubling role"

"The troubling role of Undersheriff Tanaka cannot be ignored," the report stated, pointing out that Tanaka "specifically derailed efforts to address excessive force in MJC (Mens Central Jail) when he vetoed a job rotation plan in 2006."

A sheriff's department spokesman told City News Service it would take some time for Baca to digest the nearly 200-page report, at which time he would respond to the commission's findings in detail.

"The sheriff obviously is taking the report very seriously," department spokesman Steve Whitmore said. "Nothing is off the table right now and no changes are being made. He needs time to decipher the report."

Whitmore said that at some point "sooner rather than later," Baca would lead the media on a tour of the downtown men's jail and would "answer all recommendations."

The panel recommended the county establish an Inspector General to provide independent oversight of the jails and report directly to the Board of Supervisors.

“Right now, we have a hodgepodge of groups,” said former Federal Judge Robert Bonner, who sat on the panel.

Other recommendations:

  • The sheriff should create a new position called the Assistant Sheriff for the Custody Division that would be filled by a professional corrections leader.
  • The sheriff should adopt a “dual track” system whereby Deputy Sheriffs are recruited and trained for careers in the jails. Currently, deputies often grudgingly serve time as guards before moving to street patrol.
  • The disciplinary system needs to be simplified, with alleged brutality cases investigated by trained Internal Affairs investigators.

The sheriff, who is elected by voters, is not bound by the recommendations. Bonner hopes Baca will follow them.
“It’s not going to happen unless Sheriff Baca decides that this is something he is taking to heart,” said Bonner, who once headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Other panel members included former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, former Federal Judges Lourdes Baird and Dick Tevrizian, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell and the Reverend Cecil Murray.

ACLU responds

“I think it’s a very powerful report,” said ACLU Attorney Peter Eliasberg, whose organization has regularly examined violence in L.A. County jails. “I really think the biggest issue is going to be whether the sheriff takes true ownership of the extent of the problem.”

Eliasberg wondered if the Board of Supervisors — now armed with the political weight of this report — would push harder for changes at the jail.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who attended the release of the report, said, “The sheriff has to make substantial changes in the management of those jails.”

The full board is expected to consider the report Tuesday.

Patrisse Cullors, of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. County Jails, said her 20-year-old brother was beaten by deputies at the downtown Men’s Central Jail — site of much of the violence. “He was beat so badly he blacked out.”

She said she was “elated” by the commission’s report. “I am praying [Sheriff Baca] takes these recommendations humbly, and follows them.”

The report says the panel considered whether the responsibility for operating the jails — which house nearly 20,000 inmates — should be taken away from the sheriff.

The commission rejected the idea because it would take too long to pass the required state legislation. The report said yanking the lockups away from the sheriff would also “diffuse accountability for operating the jails.”

Previous coverage on

Jail violence commission grills LA sheriff, undersheriff

Sheriff Lee Baca readies for final jail violence report

LA jail violence commission turns attention to undersheriff Paul Tanaka

CCJV-Report 9-28-2012