New Deputies Face Grueling Jail Assignments

Times Staff Writer

After spending 15 weeks at the 74th Sheriff's Academy studying textbooks and learning about first aid, cadets received a heavy dose of reality one day last April when they visited the aging, overcrowded County Jail downtown.

During the hourlong tour, wide-eyed cadets tried to conceal their fear as they came face to face with hardened criminals for the first time.

"I think I'd go crazy in there," said Cadet Tom Bedsworth, 34. "It looked like something out of Mexico. . . . I just think if I worked there, I'd never smile."

Like it or not, Bedsworth and his fellow classmates hired by the Sheriff's Department will spend the first several years of their law-enforcement careers watching over inmates in a county jail.

Deputy Gary Mahaffey, who guided the academy tour, tried to reassure the stunned cadets.

"It scared the hell out of me the first time I went in the jail," Mahaffey told the class. "It caused me to have second thoughts. You see these gorillas and it may cause you to have second thoughts. You're going to have to deal with these folks."

Many cadets said they would prefer a patrol assignment to working in one of the six county "detention facilities."

"I feel real sorry (that) these guys are going to be in here for four years and I'm going on patrol three days after the academy," said Cadet Robert Conover, who was sent through the sheriff's training program by the El Cajon Police Department. "I didn't join law enforcement to push food carts and pass out meals to inmates and count spoons at the end of the day."

Jail duty has long been viewed as a major obstacle to recruiting officers for the Sheriff's Department. Even Sheriff John Duffy initially turned down a promotion to sergeant in 1956 because it meant he would be transferred from his patrol beat in rural East County to the central jail downtown.

Three decades later, graduates fresh out of the Sheriff's Academy are required to spend more time in jail (as long as five years) than most convicted felons.

Jail duty is a dreary, depressing task with a great potential for physical harm. Sheriff's officials say that deputies face increasing danger as the jail population continues to rise. For the first time the number of inmates reached 3,000 last week--81% more than the intended capacity.

A single unarmed deputy is assigned to control a floor of more than 100 rapists, thugs, gang members and other violent criminals. Assignments range from conducting strip searches of smelly, bug-infested drunks to booking suspects accused of first-degree murder.

"This is a different universe," Mahaffey told the cadets after the jail tour. "You're unarmed and outnumbered. . . . My worst nightmare is being by myself with 100 inmates who turn around and come after me."

In addition to working nights and weekends, jail deputies must put in considerable overtime because of staffing shortages.

"You will have something planned for your day off when the sergeant tells you to work," Deputy Larry Carlin warned the cadets. "You are not being asked, my friends. They order you. They can do that."

On the job, deputies routinely respond to suicide attempts and are sued by inmates, according to academy instructors.

Because of the unpleasant and dangerous work conditions, jail duty is considered a critical part of the development and training of a "journeyman deputy," Duffy said in an interview. He said the jail offers new deputies a rare opportunity to learn in a controlled setting how to interact with criminals and anticipate dangerous circumstances.

"The jail is a training role," Duffy said. "It prepares them for the street and, in my view, makes them a far better field officer than if they were coming out of the academy directly onto the streets."

Of the 62 cadets who graduated from the 74th Sheriff's Academy, 44 are now working inside county jails. The rest either paid their own way through the academy or were sponsored by other law-enforcement agencies. Six cadets, for example, were assigned to patrol in the El Cajon Police Department.

Those who paid their own way are eligible to be hired by any law-enforcement agency, but they are not assured of a job. If the Sheriff's Department hires them, they are assigned to the jail first just like any other graduating cadet.

The deputies who completed the 74th Academy were told by various senior Sheriff's Department officers to expect to spend anywhere from 1 1/2 to 6 years working in a jail before being promoted to patrol. For decades, the Sheriff's Department has operated with the rationale that deputies "do their time" once in the jail at the start of their career before tackling more prestigious assignments.

According to Duffy, all that is about to change.

Duffy said he wants to cut the current 18-week academy to 10 weeks and send cadets into the field for 10 more weeks of patrol training before they go to the jail. In addition, the sheriff said he has directed his personnel administrators to limit jail duty to three years. To accomplish that, Duffy said he intends to send veteran deputies back to the jail.

"When you're young and you're in the academy, you want to get into patrol," Duffy said. "But after you've been out there a while . . . the job in patrol gets to be very routine, very dull. The jail's a change of pace . . . and it's not a bad place to work."

He acknowledged that his administrators have resisted his suggestions, but vowed that the changes will take place in coming months.

"I've been telling them up there for a long, long time that we are going to do this," Duffy said. "They say, 'Well, do you mean detectives, too?' And I say, 'Yes, detectives too. What the hell's wrong with that? Part of our operation is the jail . . . ' "

Because a large share of the department's growth in coming years is expected to take place in new jails, however, deputies privately expressed skepticism that jail duty will be reduced anytime soon. One jail sergeant predicted that the current crop of cadets from the 74th Academy will be working inside the jails well into the 1990s.

The new deputies must pass an 18-month probation period from the time they were hired. On July 25, Betsy Vint, 35, became the first deputy to be dismissed after graduating from the 74th Academy. She was dismissed because she "had difficulty" learning the jail operation, a sheriff's spokesman said.

The following are interviews with four other graduates:

Deputy Teri Hartley, 28. Before Hartley and her classmates began jail duty, the Sheriff's Department held a "Family Night" at the downtown jail, an outdated facility with cast-iron bars that houses the county's most dangerous felons. The tour gave friends and relatives a chance to see the jail work environment.

Many of the guests were frightened by the tour, including Hartley's fiance, Boe Telnes. After walking past suspected murderers, gang members and child molesters in their cells, Telnes expressed concern for Hartley's safety.

"I have to worry about her being in there," Telnes said. "If she ain't gonna have no gun or night stick, how is she going to protect herself?"

Telnes was not comforted by the response that deputies must learn how to talk to the inmates.

"They're going to take you," said Deputy Herbert (Hub) Brown. "Really, if they want you, they got you. You learn how to use your mouth. That's your best defense."

After three months inside the Las Colinas County Jail for women in Santee, Hartley said she is startled by the amount of stress and danger.

"I've seen inmates fight over an orange," said Hartley, who hopes to work in a men's jail soon. "You don't turn your back on the inmates or you could get your butt kicked."

Hartley described her job as "glorified baby sitting." She said she is learning a lot about criminals, their behavior and language. She did not know, for example, that "toad" refers to a homosexual.

But Hartley has found much of the work depressing. She said she still can't forget the time she dragged a drunken elderly woman kicking and screaming into a detoxification cell. The woman could not control her bladder.

"She had no teeth," Hartley recalled. "She was screaming but we couldn't understand the words. We took her to the pit, took her clothes off and searched her. . . . She was cussing and spitting and had a skin problem.

"It makes you physically sick to your stomach. . . . It's hard to handle. You think of an old woman as a grandmother. It was horrible. It's the only way to describe it."

Hartley has responded to two suicide attempts, one of a woman who slashed her wrists and the other of an inmate who tried to hang herself with bed sheets.

"She was standing on the top bunk with sheets around her neck threatening to jump," Hartley said. "To actually walk in and see somebody try to do it . . . it bums you out. After a while, I guess you get a little insensitive to it. But it's a shock."

Deputy Tom Bedsworth, 34. Being a sworn peace officer is going to take some getting used to for Bedsworth. He did a double-take recently when he noticed a sheriff's uniform and badge hanging in a closet. Bedsworth asked himself, "What are the cops doing in my bathroom?"

During his first week at the jail, Bedsworth was at the beach with his 3-year-old when two burly men approached. They recognized Bedsworth from having spent time inside County Jail in Vista.

To avoid any possible confrontation, Bedsworth denied that he worked for the Sheriff's Department. "No, not me," he responded. The two men said they could have sworn they saw Bedsworth in the jail, then they walked away, he said.

A passive, low-key individual who is accustomed to taking the path of least resistance, Bedsworth said he has developed "a tougher hide" since joining law enforcement.

"Basically, you get the feeling there are people out there who will disfigure you," he said. "You got to get your guard up."

During a recent shift inside the jail, Bedsworth said he is getting an education on how to run a "hotel and computerized dating service" at the same time. Except the customers are more demanding and threatening.

He said the jail deputies assign inmates to cells according to size, temperament, race and the seriousness of their crimes. Just when the deputies think they have made a good match, Bedsworth said, an inmate will say he wants out because a prisoner is calling him "honey."

"Basically, our job is to keep the big ones from eating the little ones," Bedsworth said.

Recently, Bedsworth was sent into a receiving tank to perform his first "cell extraction" of an inmate who was creating a disturbance. He said the mission went well because of the back-up support he received from two beefy deputies.

"Generally, I'm nervous about being here," Bedsworth said. "There's an underlying excitement there. Just when you think the inmates are no problem, we do a search and find a weapon."

Deputy Vic Gerardi, 52. Before the academy, Gerardi stopped lifting weights and lost 35 pounds to prepare for physical training sessions. Now he has resumed pumping iron six times a week to put on more weight and muscle tissue since becoming the oldest cadet to graduate from the Sheriff's Academy.

Watching over inmates with massive frames who regularly lift weights and do countless pull-ups in the jail serves as a constant reminder to Gerardi that he needs to keep pace with "the competition," he said.

A devout Christian, Gerardi is happy in County Jail in El Cajon, where he has met a training officer, a watch commander, a fellow deputy, a civilian cook and even inmates who share his religious beliefs.

At the start of each shift, Gerardi gathers his equipment in the deputies' locker room while ignoring the dozens of color photos of nude women taped to the ceiling.

"I'm praying that the Lord will take care of that," Gerardi said recently.

In the jail, Gerardi does not appear as nervous or "stressed out" as other new deputies confronted by dangerous criminals.

"God gives me a peace working in the jail," Gerardi said. "Whatever situation comes up, He is still in control."

Gerardi said that he occasionally will share a quote from the Scriptures with Christian inmates.

"I don't walk around with a Bible and preach hellfire and damnation," Gerardi said. "That's not what God has called me to do. He called me to be a deputy sheriff, not a preacher."

Some inmates are not above using the Lord to "pull a scam," Gerardi said. One non-Christian prisoner recently began discussing religion with Gerardi in hope of being granted special favors, he said.

Unlike many of his colleagues fresh out of the academy, Gerardi is in no hurry to leave the jail and work the streets.

"When God is ready to put me out to patrol, I'll go," he said.

Gerardi said he hopes to work as a detective battling the rising level of "satanic activity" in San Diego County.

"I believe (God) is the answer to coming against satanic activity," said Gerardi, who studied four years in a Bible college. "I've got a real interest in it from a law-enforcement perspective with God's backing.

"It's a real beautiful marriage."

Deputy Jeff Loving, 21. While most of his classmates complain of being slightly bored, Loving has seen more action inside the jail in El Cajon than he ever imagined.

Loving made his first vehicle stop during a "Coke run" to a nearby 7-Eleven when he pulled over a motorist who was driving on the wrong side of the road; he received a commendation for participating in the arrest of two car thieves during a routine security check outside the jail, and he located a woman who exposed herself in public for the benefit of her boyfriend behind bars.

"It's a fun place to work," said Loving, a former 7-Eleven clerk. "It's a lot better than I thought it would be. I was really dreading coming to the jail."

Loving even got into his first tussle, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He said he pinned a "big, white dude" up against a wall when the inmate made an obscene gesture.

"It kind of gives you a rush," Loving said. "In how many other jobs are you going to be able to determine how well you stack up against somebody?"

Loving's favorite assignment inside the jail is working "rover," where he is not restricted to one area and gets to respond to fights and other uprisings. He said he enjoys strapping on his leather belt, gun and baton to conduct outside security checks and raise the American flag each morning.

"That is big-time fun for me," Loving said.

During a recent security check, Loving and his partner saw a woman standing outside the jail pulling down her pants for the amusement of her incarcerated boyfriend. When she disappeared into a crowd, Loving went to the roof of the jail to try to locate her.

"It surprised me," Loving said of watching through binoculars as the woman pulled down her shorts. "These ladies should realize there are a couple of hundred other guys watching."

Loving said he and his partner pulled the woman out of a department store across the street from the jail. While his partner did most of the talking, Loving said, he told the woman to think about losing custody of her 12-year-old child for exposing herself. The woman was not arrested.

"She was sincerely crying her eyes out," Loving said. "She was shaking. I don't think she will do that again."

Loving, who wants to become a martial-arts instructor, said he is content to learn the ropes of jail duty for one year and to apply that knowledge for another year. But after that, he wants to work the streets.

"I can't think of a job I'd rather do," he said.

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