Jail cameras now rolling, sheriff says
November 1, 2011
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, responding to mounting public criticism and an increasingly impatient Board of Supervisors, said Tuesday that the long-overdue installation of surveillance cameras in the Men’s Central Jail is finally underway and that new measures have been mandated to ensure faster investigations of alleged brutality by deputies.
“My intent …is to reduce force to the absolute barest minimum,” Baca told the supervisors as he presented a report on the department’s progress in implementing an array of reform recommendations, from banning flashlights as “impact” weapons to nabbing violent deputies through undercover sting operations. Baca said some use of force in the jails is inevitable but that he wanted to manage such situations “so that we are not the provocateurs of force.”
The flurry of action inside the department comes at a time when an independent investigative commission, created recently by the Board of Supervisors, has started to take shape. As of Tuesday, three of the five supervisors had announced their selections to the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, all of the nominees well known figures in judicial and criminal justice circles.
They are: Lourdes G. Baird, a former U.S. attorney and retired federal judge, selected by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; retired U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian, named by Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, and Carlos R. Moreno, a former associate justice of the California Supreme Court, who was picked by Supervisor Gloria Molina. [Updated 11/3/11: Supervisor Don Knabe announced Thursday that he has selected Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, a former LAPD Medal of Valor recipient, as his nominee to the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence.]
Baca, confronting the biggest controversy of his four terms as the county’s elected sheriff, has said he supports the commission’s scrutiny. Long considered one of the nation’s most forward-thinking law enforcement officials, Baca suddenly finds himself at the center of a storm over the alleged mistreatment of inmates under his department’s supervision. The ACLU, which monitors alleged brutality within the county’s bursting jail system, has called for the sheriff’s resignation.
In a stunning public concession several weeks ago, Baca told the Los Angeles Times that his command staff had not kept him fully informed about problems within the lockup, thus slowing the implementation of reforms to curb excessive force.
“I wasn’t ignoring the jails,” Baca said, “I just didn’t know. People can say, ‘What the hell kind of leader is that?’ The truth is I should’ve known. So now I do.”
Specifically, Baca said that during a recent visit to the Men’s Central Jail, he spotted 69 video cameras still sitting in boxes in the captain’s office. They’d been purchased more than a year ago, at a cost of $157,530, to monitor inmates and deputies.
In his testimony Tuesday, Baca said that all those cameras are now up and running, along with 17 others that have been installed in the booking area of the Twin Towers jail. An additional 300 cameras were ordered last week, at a cost of $308,306, and will be installed within five months, Baca told the board members.
“The need for them was yesterday, not five months from today,” Supervisor Antonovich responded.
“This is like the third time we’ve asked for these cameras to be installed,” Molina said.
Baca explained that the high cost of installation quoted by an outside company had slowed the timetable. Now, the work is being done in-house.
Despite skeptical questioning, Baca also assured supervisors that he has put in place new policies to review cases involving severe use of force in the jails within 30 days—one of a series of reforms recommended over the years by two Sheriff’s Department watchdogs, Special Counsel Merrick Bobb and the Office of Independent Review. Both report to the Board of Supervisors.
Currently, such cases “just sit around for a long time,” Molina said. Baca insisted that his new Custody Force Response Team will be able to meet the new 30-day deadline.
“I’m confident that when we talk about this in two more months, I’ll have some data for you,” Baca said.
According to the sheriff’s report, another potential reform being considered is whether jail deputies should wear video cameras while interacting with inmates. The report said the department currently is looking at three different camera models to see how they might work in county jails.
Another longstanding reform recommendation—creation of a “two-track career path” for deputies inside and out of the jails—also remains under review. Critics have long complained that the current policy of assigning all new deputies to years of service in the jails before they’re placed on patrol duty can contribute to hostility and brutality toward inmates. The department is now working with the deputies’ union on a way to offer alternatives, said Baca’s report, which begins with this “mission” statement:
“Until all deputies feel a sense of professional accomplishment while providing sensible and constitutionally established services to those in our care, our success as a department is not accomplished.”