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Update: LA County jails to get oversight committee

Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca did not show up for a key vote by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday to create a citizen’s jail commission. The new panel is charged with examining allegations of widespread inmate abuse by Baca’s jail deputies, especially those who work at Men’s Central Jail downtown.

“I was disappointed he wasn’t here today,” Supervisor Gloria Molina today. An assistant sheriff said Baca was meeting with a group of jail captains.

In the past, the independently elected sheriff has been resistant to outside oversight, but Molina said this time Baca called her and said he was supportive of the commission. Each supervisor will appoint one member.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the panel is similar to the Christopher Commission that looked at the LAPD in the wake of the Rodney King beating, and recommended reforms. Despite similarities, questions remain about whether the panel will have the resources to conduct a thorough review. The board did not approve a budget for its work.

"Deep and long term solutions to our problems in the jail need to be articulated frankly, publicly, with a group of independent citizens," Yaroslavsky said before the vote.

Baca is independently elected by L.A. County voters, and would be under no obligation to follow any recommendations. Yaroslavsky said the panel will carry enough political weight to apply the necessary pressure for change.

"It's just become necessary to have a fresh set of eyes on the problem," Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said before the vote. Civil libertarians have long expressed concerns about inmate abuse inside L.A. County lockups, especially at the downtown Men's Central Jail. The FBI also has launched an investigation into the L.A. County jail system. Civil rights activists have long complained of abuse, and the county has paid out millions of dollars to inmates who have filed lawsuits.

In addition to creating the commission, the Board of Supervisors approved a series of jail reforms and asked Sheriff Baca to report back on them in two weeks. One commission calls for the installation of cameras in the jails — something the sheriff has been slow to adopt. Another proposal calls on deputies to no longer use flashlights as batons.

“It is heavy, it has sharp angles,” the board’s Special Counsel Merrick Bobb said. “It causes much greater injury — many more fractures, many more broken bones — than does a baton.”

That proposal immediately drew fire from Mark Divis, a representative of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents jail deputies.

“Do not jeopardize our deputies by removing a tool that has been used for years,” Divis said.

The union’s president, Floyd Hayhurst, warned against portraying all deputies as brutal. He also said Baca should be allowed to address the problems on his own: “Give him the opportunity to work through the problems and get them fixed,” he said.

"I wasn't ignoring the jails. I just didn't know," Baca told the Times. "People can say, 'What the hell kind of leader is that?' The truth is I should've known. So now I do know."

Connie Rice, civil rights attorney and friend of Baca, told the California Report's Krissy Clark that Baca usually leads through inspiration and positive energy but now will look toward more concrete changes.

"I think he's now seeing that's not enough. That you actually have to change the incentives, you have to rewrite the job descriptions, you have to change the promotional criteria, and what people do on their shifts," she said.

The stories of abuse coming out of the jails are indeed harrowing.

Gordan Grbavac, 44, is a father of four who spent eight days in jail on an illegal weapons charge that was eventually dropped.

"They handcuffed me and took me to a back room and they slammed my head into a glass wall over half a dozen times," he said. "There was blood on the glass. There was blood on the cement floor."

Accounts like these don't just come from former inmates. Jail Chaplain Paulino Juarez said he witnessed a passive inmate plead with three deputies as they repeatedly punched him.

"He was just saying 'stop, please stop. I did nothing wrong.'" Juarez recalled. "I was shaking, I was sad, I was upset."

In a declaration filed in federal court by the ACLU, Juarez said he later saw a pool of blood where the inmate fell to the floor.

Few know more about the jails than Merrick Bobb. He's been special counsel to the board of supervisors for two decades. His job is to watchdog the sheriffs department.

"A lot of what has transpired lately is more of the same of what has been around for a long period of time," Bobb said.

Bobb believes there is a culture that allows abuse of inmates. He said a relatively few number of deputies engage in excessive use of force, but many more help cover it up.

"The code of silence is one of the building blocks that allows it to be maintained and sustained," Bobb said.

Bobb also said many politicians and the public tend to be uninterested in what happens to people who end up inside L.A. County jails. He said before the vote that he hopes that's finally changing.

Supervisor Molina said the sheriff needs a push to make real change, and issued a threat if Baca doesn’t make reforms.

“I am not going to give him a nickel until he starts doing what we are recommending,” Molina told KPCC. “I have found that is the only way that you can have any kind of accountability with your children, with anybody.”