By Sadhbh Walshe
Last week, Sheriff Lee Baca of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD) announced that he agrees with and plans to implement all of the 63 recommended reforms (pdf) issued by the Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence (CCJV). Baca's decision to embrace the reforms – he said, "I couldn't have written them better myself" – was met with cautious optimism by the CCJV, which was formed last year in the wake of scathing reports to investigate widespread and systemic abuses in the county jails. The questions remain, however, why it has taken the sheriff so long to actually acknowledge that the jail system he oversees is rife with abuse; and why, considering his failure to do so until now, he still has a job.
Baca was sworn in as sheriff of Los Angeles in 1998 and has been responsible for supervising the county's jails since that time. The rampant violence inflicted on inmates in the jails preceded his tenure, and Baca actually pledged to put an end to it when he came into office. Yet, there are volumes of evidence to show that a culture that encourages excessive use of force and brutality by deputies continued to thrive, unchecked, during his period in office.
Until very recently, though, Baca has insisted on downplaying, or denying, the problem. Only after overwhelming pressure from the combined forces of an FBI investigation, an LA Times investigation, a multitude of lawsuits, several scathing reports highlighting abuse by the ACLU and other agencies, and finally, the damning report by the CCJV, has Baca moved on to embrace reforms.
Last January, the ACLU of southern California filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all prisoners in the jail system, naming Baca himself as the defendant and suing him in his official capacity as sheriff. The complaint, filed in federal court, details a litany of sadistic attacks by deputies, most of them unprovoked and far exceeding any force that may have been necessary to control a situation. Bashing inmates' heads against the wall, or punching or kicking inmates in the head, are favorite tactics. So are the repeated use of tasers on inmates, kicking them in the back, groin or stomach, and the enabling or encouraging of sexual assaults and anal rape. Here are a couple of examples that typify the kind of unnecessary force used by deputies in the jails:
"In June 2009, a group of deputies assaulted Darrell Garrett in Men's Central jail while he was restrained in waist chains. Deputies then kicked Mr Garrett in the face and head, while another deputy held him down. As the beating continued, they hit him in the head with a plastic milk crate, ground his face into the concrete floor, and emptied two cans of mace into Mr Garrett's mouth, ears, nose and eyes."
"In March, 2011, in Men's Central jail, Deputy Smith knocked a tray of food from Alberto Carreras's hands and twisted his arms behind his back. Deputy Johnson then slammed Mr Carrera's face against a wall. Deputies punched Mr Carreras on his face, head and legs, while yelling 'Shut up ,you fucking faggot' at him. Mr Carreras had a catheter and the blows to his legs caused tremendous pain and led him to bleed from his penis."
There are undoubtedly some inmates with their own propensity for violence among the approximately 19,000 held in the LA county jail system. But the vast majority of these prisoners are pre-trial detainees, most of whom have not been charged with violent offenses; many more are held on relatively minor charges like public intoxication or traffic violations. No person should be subject to deputy brutality and excessive force when they are wards of the state. Yet in LA County – regardless of however little threat a prisoner presents– a force-first, rather than force-last, approach has long been the accepted policy.
The irony, of course, is that if these rogue deputies inflicted beatings remotely as severe to anyone on the street, they would almost certainly be awarded a jail sentence. But when the beatings occur inside the jails, the perpetrators can rely on not being sanctioned by the LASD. This failure by senior deputies and, ultimately, by Baca himself to hold any deputy accountable in the LASD was one of the key findings of the CCJV report. It was also noted by Thomas Parker, a former FBI agent who oversaw the FBI's investigation into the force. Parker reportedly said:
"There is at least a two-decade history of corruption within the ranks of the LASD … no one at the command level appears to have been held accountable and appropriately punished for failure to properly supervise and manage their subordinate personnel and resources."
All this considered, you can understand why Baca's stated willingness to embrace and implement all the recommended reforms has been met with only "cautious optimism" by all concerned. The fact that he made clear that he has no immediate plans to discipline any senior managers who have been implicated in the previous practice and cover-up of abuse is also not encouraging. Baca appears to be standing by his Under Sheriff Paul Tanaka, who is under investigation for allegations in the CCJV report that he "not only failed to identify and correct problems in the jails, he exacerbated them."
Still, there is reason to hope that better times are ahead for the Los Angeles County jail system – if, now that Baca's hand has been forced, he actually does ensure that the reforms are implemented. If he does not, then he, too, must be held accountable.