October 11, 2011
Last week, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca lashed out at the FBI investigation into allegations of inmate abuse and deputy misconduct in the county jails and insisted that his department was capable of policing itself. This week, Baca is taking a different and decidedly more conciliatory tone, declaring his willingness to work with federal investigators and promising to conduct a top-to-bottom review, including opening old cases.
The sheriff's abrupt shift is welcome, but he has not yet proposed anything sufficient to address the problems. Not given the disturbing accounts by deputies, including allegations by a rookie who said his supervisor forced him to beat a mentally disabled inmate. Not given reports by the American Civil Liberties Union that include more than 70 signed affidavits from inmates, chaplains and a monitor who said they either witnessed or were victims of abuse. Not given that the jails have remained under federal oversight for 30 years. And not given the long history of riots and killings by inmates, and the cliques of deputies in some substations, such as the Lynwood Vikings, which a judge described as a "neo-Nazi" gang.
The culture of the Sheriff's Department needs nothing short of a drastic overhaul. Holding town hall meetings with inmates, as Baca has already begun doing, and inviting reporters to sit in seems more like a publicity stunt than a commitment to meaningful change. And though he has formed two task forces to review allegations, both are fatally compromised by the fact that they are made up of department insiders, including some who may have failed to detect problems despite complaints from civil rights attorneys and inmates' lawsuits. As L.A. County Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky said when they called for an independent investigator, Baca's internal monitors, including the Office of Independent Review, "may be very much a part of the problem."
The Board of Supervisors can't fire Baca. He's an elected official. Only voters (or Baca himself) can decide his future. But the supervisors can form an independent commission like the one created after the beating of Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police officers. With the right appointees and a strong, clear mandate, a commission could conduct the kind of thorough, unbiased investigation required to determine the depth of the problem and identify steps to change the culture and the practices of the agency. Baca said Monday that he was open to the idea of an outside investigation. The commission could do its work even as the FBI continues investigating for violations of the law.
The supervisors should also review the policy that requires new deputies, who are trained to patrol the streets, to first serve as jailers in a sprawling and overcrowded prison system. And they should not delay plans to install cameras in the jails.
L.A. County's jails have a long and troubled history that precedes the current sheriff. But if Baca wants to salvage his reputation, he must acknowledge unequivocally the gravity of the situation and work closely with outsiders to police his department.
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