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Report: Use of force against inmates up at LA jails

Los Angeles, UNITED STATES: The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles where hotel heiress Paris Hilton is currently being held in custody for medical treatment, 08 June 2007 Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Sauer ordered Hilton returned to a Los Angeles County jail to serve out the remainder of her 45-day sentence for violating probation in an alcohol-related reckless driving case.  AFP PHOTO / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Twin Towers is part of the sprawling Los Angeles County jail system. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Los Angeles sheriff’s officials say they’re unsure why use of force by deputies against jail inmates jumped 11 percent in the first nine months of this year.

The biggest increase occurred at North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, where Sheriff’s deputies used force against inmates 65 times - a 40 percent increase compared to the same period last year. The jail holds about 3,900 inmates.

“I’m not sure if the actual use of force is up, or if we’re doing a better job reporting it,” said Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who oversees the county’s sprawling jail system. “But I’m concerned it's up.”

See Take Two's full interview with McDonald here. 

Last year, as part of wide-ranging reforms, the Sheriff’s Department began requiring deputies to report any use of force against an inmate. If you grab the arm of an inmate and you “use some of your strength to move them,” you must report that, said McDonald.

Use of force at the Castaic jail, which houses some of the toughest inmates, may be the result of an increase in gang activity and the need for deputy intervention, she said. “Gang politics can drive incidents.”

An adjacent facility in Castaic - the Pitchess Detention Center - saw a decrease in use of force, according to statistics provided by the Sheriff’s Department to the Board of Supervisors during its meeting Tuesday.

The report did not address the treatment of mentally ill inmates. The United States Department of Justice has accused the Sheriff's Department of providing inadequate care for those inmates, and is seeking a consent decree--a court-sanctioned agreement--mandating reforms.

In all, deputies used force 512 times during the first nine months of the year. Most of the incidents -- 352 -- involved “control holds” or the use of chemical agents like Mace. Punches, kicks, the use of Tasers or batons, “and/or any use of force which results in an injury or lasting pain” accounted for 157 incidents.

Three incidents involved shootings, strikes to the head, “and/or any force which results in skeletal fractures and/or hospitalization.”  

In 53 cases, inmates accused deputies of using excessive force. The department determined 42 allegations were unfounded, ten remain under review, and one was determined to be true.

The Sheriff's report to the county board assessed the department’s progress on reforms recommended by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. The report said the department is still setting up a more comprehensive system to track deputy performance, create an internal audit division, and train deputies on how to better interact with mentally ill inmates.

A separate report from the newly created Office of Inspector General found that the department has implemented 45 of the commission’s 60 recommendations. It said ten are “partially implemented” and five are “in progress.” 

“The department has been forthcoming and transparent,” said Inspector General Max Huntsman. But he added the Sheriff’s Department continues to withhold personnel information about deputies involved in use of force incidents, citing privacy laws. 

Huntsman argues that the statute that created his office allows him to look at personnel records. It will be up to the next sheriff to decide whether to open them. If he doesn’t, Huntsman warned of a “massive blind spot” in his ability to monitor the department.