The first question for anyone contemplating the future of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is this: Is it suffering from a few small problems or is it profoundly broken? There's good reason to believe it's the latter.
Consider, for example, two observations from outside observers asked to analyze the department's practices. First: "My staff and I found deeply disturbing evidence of excessive force and lax discipline. The LASD has not been able to solve its own problems of excessive force in the past and has not reformed itself with adequate thoroughness and speed."
And this: "Over the years, there has been a mind-set among some deputies that reflects a lack of respect for inmates, views force as the preferred option to control inmates, and bristles at supervision. Management has contributed to this mind-set by sending the wrong signals, in both its words and deeds."
Those are damning statements, but what is particularly troubling about them is that they were written 20 years apart. The first quote comes from the 1992 report of the Kolts Commission, the second from the 2012 report of the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence.
And it's not as if problems went unrecognized during the period between the two reports. Merrick Bobb, appointed by the Board of Supervisors to monitor the sheriff, regularly warned of trouble and urged reforms in his quarterly updates on the department. News reports in this paper and others highlighted examples of misconduct and violence in the jails. The ACLU filed lawsuits. Activists urged action. Moreover, during that same period, the LAPD underwent a profound transformation and is today properly regarded as vastly improved.
But Los Angeles County is a near-perfect accountability-free zone, a place where attempts to forge progress often run up against an impenetrable gauze of uncertainty about who's responsible. As early as 1992, the Kolts report recommended rotating deputies through assignments in the jails; Bobb repeatedly urged the same, adding that rotations would prevent deputies from forming cliques. Twenty years later, the 2012 report found that no such rotation policy had ever been implemented. The sheriff, an elected official who does not report to the board, hadn't moved forward, and the county supervisors hadn't pressed him.
Similarly, it took nine years from the first warnings about deputies using flashlights to strike inmates until the flashlights were replaced with lighter ones. Nine years to buy new flashlights. In the meantime, inmates continued to be beaten, deputies continued to go unpunished.
Despite that depressing history, there are actually some signs of change at work in the Sheriff's Department today. Sheriff Lee Baca abruptly stepped down from his post this year, and the supervisors appointed John Scott, a veteran of the department who left in frustration in 2005, to serve out Baca's term.
Forceful, approachable and, in contrast to Baca, refreshingly direct, Scott already has launched a host of symbolic changes: Unlike Baca, for instance, he accepts no gifts, and he's converted a private smoking deck that was a symbol of the department's cliquish favoritism into a grill open to the rank and file. He's also tackled a host of substantive changes, including forming a working group to revise the department's core values.
When we spoke last week, the sheriff described his job as "daunting but rewarding," and made clear that he's committed to putting the department back on its feet.
As part of that mission, Scott has met privately with each of the leading candidates for sheriff, and is trying to make sure his work complements their ideas for the department. Actually, he's met with all but one of those candidates, and his one omission is telling. He opted not to make time for Paul Tanaka, a former colleague and second-in-command to Baca whom Scott regards as a source of much of the agency's trouble. As Scott observed: "His interests and the department's interests were on two different tracks."
In Scott, the Sheriff's Department has a solid, conscientious leader, but he's only there until a new sheriff is elected and takes over, probably at the beginning of next year. (If no candidate wins outright in June, there would be a November runoff.) That's not much time at an agency famous for slow progress.
One of those who has doubts about what can be accomplished is Patrisse Cullors. Cullors took up the issue of Sheriff's Department reform after her brother was beaten bloody by deputies in 1999. She now heads the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in Los Angeles, which has been collecting testimony about troubles in today's department. Her group is scheduled to release its findings Monday, and to call for the creation of a citizens oversight panel, which she regards as necessary to finally break the department's intransigence. Even that, she concedes, might not go far enough.
"I don't think it's going to be cured overnight," she told me last week. "These are deep cultural issues."