Dozens of Beatings and Coverups by Officers in L.A. County Jails

The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department is under even more scrutiny, just as the state begins moving thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails.

By Jorge Rivas Oct 14, 2011

A new report released by the Los Angeles County’s Office of Independent Review found sheriff’s officials have disciplined more than 30 jail employees for beating inmates or engaging in cover-ups over the past two years. The report comes at a time when the county is preparing to receive an influx of inmates from the state system–and on the heels of previous reports that "gang-like" groups of corrections officers have abused inmates in Los Angeles jails for decades.

The report, written by Chief Attorney Michael Gennaco, includes almost a dozen detailed reports of instances where officers lied about their involvement with inmate beatings, didn’t report beatings that they witnessed, and used excessive force against non-resistant prisoners.

The report comes at a time when the sheriff’s department is under increasing scrutiny for how it operates the county’s jails. Last month the F.B.I. announced it’s investigating allegations of "inmate beatings and other misconduct." The inquiries include allegations that deputies broke an inmate’s jaw and other facial bones and beat another man for two minutes while he was unconscious.

The ACLU also released an annual report on the county’s jail system in September that detailed a pattern of what the report called "severe and pervasive abuse of inmates" at the hands of deputies that has been allowed to exist under the direction of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who the report says has covered up and ignored the claims of savagery.

In one case detailed in the Office of Independent Review’s report, officers Tasered an inmate once he was handcuffed and continued beating him, but reported a much different story. From Gennaco’s report:

Once on the ground, deputies kicked the inmate in the legs, employed numerous punches and knee strikes to the face and head of the inmate, and kicked the inmate’s torso. At the end of the confrontation, one deputy deployed a Taser on the inmate while he was lying prone on the floor, and then a second time while the inmate was handcuffed.

In their reports, deputies wrote that the inmate was trying to crawl away as justification for the Taser use; the video camera attached to the Taser contradicted these accounts. Much of the incident was captured on one of the few video cameras at Men’s Central Jail, helping to provide the proof necessary for the Department to find that the deputies used unnecessary force in this case.

Inmate advocates say there are dozens of cases like this that have not been taken seriously or investigated because there is no proof that they actually occurred, other than the inmates’ accounts.

The ACLU report says officers in county jails form "gang-like groups" that protect each other:

It has continued unchecked for decades. Gang-like groups of deputies have been operating in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department at least since the 1980s, and perhaps since the early 1970s, and these deputy gangs continue to operate today seemingly with impunity, right under the eyes of all levels of the current management of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

"One vitally important investigative tool is the video camera," writes Gennaco in the report. "In the examples detailed in this report where video evidence was available, the proven allegations of excessive force would not have been provable but for the existence of video evidence."

The report notes the Office of Independent Review has advocated for surveillance cameras to be installed for years but Sheriff Baca has moved slowly.

"We are heartened by the apparent activation of a too-long delayed plan to install cameras in Men’s Central Jail and the Inmate Reception Center. We have also long advocated for the installation of cameras at all of the remaining jail facilities, particularly Twin Towers because of its high percentage of inmates with mental health issues," Gennaco writes in the report. 

The ACLU has received several thousand complaints from prisoners in the Los Angeles County jail system in the past year alone, according to their report. Unless something is done, those reports will undoubtedly multiply.

This month, the first of 30,000 California state prison inmates who have committed less serious crimes will be released or transferred to county jails, as part of a program California Gov. Jerry Brown is calling "realignment," to help reduce prison overcrowding.

Thousands of the "realignment" inmates are expected to enter LA County jails.