A look behind the bars

October 13, 2011 

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a steady and serious stream of allegations involving excessive force inside Los Angeles County’s jail system, allegations that are undermining public confidence in our commitment to the constitutional protections afforded inmates.

Media and advocacy organizations have detailed numerous cases of alleged inmate mistreatment that, if true, suggest a breakdown of accountability and discipline within the agency that runs the jails, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. These incidents are notable not only because of the alleged ferocity of the beatings but because some of them were reported by civilian observers who say they were shocked and scared by what they witnessed.

Allegations of brutality in the nation’s largest jail system are not new, and the Sheriff’s Department itself can rightly point to a history of firing and disciplining deputies who’ve been accused of excessive force. I feel confident that the vast majority of deputies are conducting themselves appropriately in the stressful environment of our overcrowded lock-up. But there appears to be a certain brazenness in these recent cases that raises questions about whether a culture of disregard for the constitutional rights of inmates is taking root among some deputies.

Currently, the FBI is investigating this alleged mistreatment of prisoners, and Sheriff Lee Baca has assembled an in-house task force to examine, or reexamine, a number of alleged incidents compiled by the ACLU and others. I’m confident that these will lead to disciplinary action and criminal prosecutions if warranted.

Still, more is needed. The Board of Supervisors is responsible to the taxpayers and to the broader community for the safe, efficient and constitutional operation of our jail system. To that end, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and I will introduce a motion at the board’s Tuesday meeting urging our colleagues to create a Citizen’s Commission of five distinguished county residents to “conduct a review of the nature, depth and cause of the problem of inappropriate deputy use of force in the jails, and to recommend corrective action as necessary.”

It also would be the responsibility of the commission’s five members, each one appointed by a member of the Board of Supervisors, to hold the sheriff and the board accountable for the “speedy and effective implementation” of potential solutions.

As Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and I write in our motion: “It is the Sheriff himself, as head of the department, and the members of the Board of Supervisors as the ultimate decision-makers for the County, who will be held accountable for the quality and constitutionality of law enforcement services to the county.”

Posted 10/13/11

 

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