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Cameras bolster jailhouse force investigations

Cameras installed inside Los Angeles County jails have been a powerful tool in vetting allegations of deputies abusing inmates, according to a watchdog report released Thursday.

For years, critics of the Sheriff’s Department's jails pushed the department to install cameras in the lockups since independent witnesses are rarely present when deputies use force. In 2011, following an onslaught of inmate abuse allegations, the department began installing hundreds of cameras.

The report released by the agency’s civilian monitor Thursday found that the footage has helped to exonerate deputies who were falsely accused and build cases against those who break the rules.

“The department now has a video record of 90% of force incidents in its downtown jails and is no longer completely reliant on ‘observations’ of inmates and jail deputies,” the report by Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review stated.

Dozens of cameras were installed inside the downtown Men’s Central Jail in 2011 — when the FBI’s investigation of deputy misconduct inside the lockups first became publicly known. Today there are 705 cameras installed in the facility with about 840 more in the sheriff’s other downtown jail facilities, Twin Towers and the Inmate Reception Center.

Gennaco’s report found that there are still areas of the lockups that cameras don’t cover, causing shortcomings in some investigations, but that overall, use of force investigations have improved because of the cameras.

In one case, an inmate accused a deputy of injuring him by violently pulling his handcuffed arms upward. But a recording of the incident showed that there no force used by the deputy.

In another case, a prisoner filled out a complaint form claiming he had been handcuffed and left in a recreation area for more than three hours, before being violently grabbed and slammed into a door.

A supervisor located the footage of the incident and “discovered that much of the inmate’s complaint was substantiated by the video evidence,” according to the report. “While there were some inconsistencies between the inmate’s statement and the video — most notably that the inmate did not appear to be slammed into a door or wall — he did accurately describe rough handling by the deputy,”

The deputy had not reported the force, and eventually was given “a significant suspension.”

The report comes at a tumultuous time in the Sheriff’s Department’s history. Sheriff Lee Baca will be stepping down next week, announcing his unexpected retirement amid a string of scandals relating to inmate abuse and bad hiring. And the future of the Office of Independent Review, which issued the report Thursday, is unclear.

A new civilian monitor — the Office of the Inspector General — with expanded authority was created recently, and is in the process of setting up to begin work. Some county supervisors had criticized Gennaco for not doing more to expose problems in the Sheriff’s Department. Gennaco has countered by saying his recommendations for reform were not heeded.

As is typical in Gennaco’s reports, recent cases of deputy misconduct were highlighted.

In one case, a deputy was fired after he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman who came in for a vehicle inspection after repairing a broken headlight. He allegedly directed her to go to his office, then leered at her body and told her he liked her breasts, before grabbing them, according to the report

Later, the deputy was accused of getting in her car and directing her to drive into a parking structure. She said she tried to leave, but he asked her to promise she would come back before taking her hand and placing it on his groin.

“The deputy then asked her if she wanted to see his penis and if she wanted to kiss his parts as he appeared to be unzipping his pants,” according to the report.

The deputy denied all allegations, and prosecutors declined to file charges citing a lack of evidence. But an administrative investigation by the Sheriff’s Department found that he violated multiple policies — including committing immoral conduct and making derogatory statements — and he was fired.

In another case, an off-duty deputy was accused of posing as an undercover vice officer. He allegedly told a young woman working in a tanning parlor that he was recruiting young, attractive women to pose as prostitutes for undercover operations and offered to pay her $50 an hour.

She told her mother about the offer, and the mother contacted sheriff’s officials, who began investigating the incident, unaware that the suspect was a deputy.

Detectives learned that the deputy had sent emails to the woman asking to set up a meeting at the tanning parlor and reminding her to keep it a secret. When he arrived to meet her, detectives were there waiting and arrested him for impersonating an officer, before learning he was a patrol deputy.

According to the report, the deputy’s job responsibilities did not include prostitution enforcement. The deputy said he was only there because “he wanted to hang out with the victim. He later told a supervisor that he had been planning on cheating on his wife and was glad that he had been caught,” according to the report.

Prosecutors declined to file charges, concluding there was insufficient evidence, but the deputy was fired.

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Twitter: RobertFaturechi

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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