February 7, 2013
For months, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has been under mounting pressure to address abuse and misconduct in the jails he oversees. Faced with news reports and the recommendations of a special commission, he pledged to institute reforms and fix the problems that have occurred on his watch, and yet his actions remain halting and inconclusive.
Last week, there was some movement. Baca submitted Terri McDonald's name to the county Board of Supervisors as his choice to serve as the new assistant sheriff for the custody division. If appointed, McDonald, who is currently the undersecretary of rehabilitation at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, will have the most important role in determining whether real and meaningful changes are made in the jails, or whether it is business as usual. In order to demonstrate a commitment to progress, over the next three months, she should:
Finish installing cameras in all the jails and make sure they are fully functioning. This will serve to deter unnecessary use of force by deputies and assist in the investigation of such incidents.
Upgrade the computerized system used to track inmate complaints against deputies as well use-of-force incidents. The Los Angeles Police Department, after much foot-dragging, modernized its system and now monitors its officers more effectively and comprehensively.
Create a separate career track for deputies who want to work in the jails rather than moving them to the field. This won't be easy and will require negotiation with union leaders. But at the very least, she can establish a training program for new jailers, the first step toward ending the department's long reliance on the jails as an unwanted training ground for deputies who hope to work elsewhere.
Demonstrate her resolve on discipline. The assistant sheriff should hold captains accountable for the investigation of subordinates, and she needs to personally involve herself in reviewing incidents that involve injuries. She must be a forceful advocate for enhanced penalties when deputies are found guilty of dishonesty or abuse, and must push Baca to transfer or discipline those who violate the rules.
Adopt a rotation policy that will help break up cliques of deputies. That policy should also ensure that new jailers aren't immediately placed in dangerous units.
These are not abstract ambitions. They are measurable, short-term fixes that are badly overdue. If McDonald achieves them, she and Baca may justifiably be credited with tackling some of the system's most serious issues. If not, they will invite the argument that Baca's commitment is insincere and his office better suited to someone else.
Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times