Deputy Testimony Confirms Culture of Abuse in L.A. County Jails

By Julianne Hing Jun 06, 2014

In court this week, Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies have confirmed allegations of a culture of abuse inside LA county jails that inmates have complained about for years. Unprovoked beatings, bogus write-ups of inmate infractions, aggressive searches were all a routine part of policing the incarcerated, testified Sheriff’s Deputy Gilbert Michel on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

Gilbert took the stand in a trial against six Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputies, sergeants and lieutenants accused of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for interfering with a federal investigation into excessive force inside Los Angeles county jails. Lieutenant Gregory Thompson, Lieutenant Steve Leavins, Sergeant Scott Craig, Sergeant Maricella Long, Deputy Mickey Manzo and Deputy Gerard Smith face up to 15 years in federal prison if convicted, and are just six of 20 charged in a widespread corruption probe. But they’re not facing charges of excessive force.

"Lock the jail, hide the federal informant, silence the witnesses and threaten the FBI agent," was the scheme the sheriff’s department cooked up once it learned of a federal investigation into its treatment of inmates, federal prosecutor Liz Rhodes said during opening statements last Tuesday, ABC reported.

The FBI opened an investigation into the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department after receiving complaints from inmates and their family members of a culture of abuse which functioned with total impunity. Inmates claimed that deputies, particularly on two high-security floors of the county Men’s Central Jail, staged gladiator-like fights between inmates–sometimes filming them–and allowed inmates to enter each others’ cells to attack one another, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

"You heard of ‘flashlight therapy’?" Jermond Davis, a former inmate at the Men’s County Jail told Colorlines in January. "It’s a misnomer. You’re not getting any therapy."

On Wednesday, FBI Special Agent Leah Marx testified that a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy told her in private that it was not uncommon for deputies to use their flashlights as weapons against inmates out of desire instead or necessity, the Los Angeles Times reported. Inmates who fought back with deputies were beaten up so badly that they’d require hospitalization, another testified.

As Davis told Colorlines‘ Aura Bogado in January:

Like so many others, Davis was moved to a medical ward and put under observation. He says he was placed in solitary confinement and was only allowed to leave his tiny cell once every other day to take a shower. Although he says he didn’t feel suicidal, he was placed on suicide watch, which meant he couldn’t make his court dates. That was done, says Davis, so that the public couldn’t see the multiple bruises he got as a result of his beating. He wasn’t allowed access to phone calls, and the only visitor he saw for two months was his lawyer. When asked whether he explained what happened to his lawyer, he takes pause.

"No," he answers, before struggling to explain the kind of fear and vulnerability inmates feel in Baca’s jails. "These people can beat you to death, and no one can do anything about it."

Deputies knew that even if inmates complained about treatment they received, it was always their word against the sheriff’s department, and complaints were read only by other deputies. It facilitated even more aggression. On the stand this week, Deputy Michel recounted the routine brutalization of inmates at the Men’s County Jail where Davis was held, the Los Angeles Times reported. Deputies would falsify report to legitimize their brutality, or if inmates had no visible injuries, left off filing a report altogether.

In the course of its investigation, the FBI decided to smuggle in a cell phone to Anthony Brown, an FBI informant and inmate by bribing Michel, who took the bait. Once the cell phone handed off to Brown was found in a routine search of his cell and linked to the FBI investigation, the Sheriff’s Department responded by changing Brown’s name and hiding him from federal authorities so they couldn’t keep track of him, which constituted an obstruction of justice, the FBI argues. The current case is not about excessive force, and yet the information coming to light is damning. The case is expected to last a month. A separate trial involving a sheriff’s deputy accused of misconduct in hiding details about Anthony Brown ended in a mistrial last week after the jury deadlocked.