Supervisors Will Review Claims of County Jail Abuse

Times Staff Writer

The Board of Supervisors, responding to a rising tide of public concern over recent complaints of violence in the county jail system, announced Thursday that it will review all claims of excessive force by sheriff’s deputies in the jails.

Board Chairman George Bailey said in a statement that he and the other supervisors plan to examine claims alleging misconduct by deputies. The statement said they will begin the process Wednesday in closed session.

“We do not like to have to settle lawsuits because (an employee of) the county has done the wrong thing,” said Supervisor Susan Golding. “I would like to know what the facts are, and once I know the facts I will know what I feel--as an elected official and as a citizen--what should be done.”


Complaints Have Grown

More than 50 inmates in the county’s jails have alleged within the past month that they have been assaulted by sheriff’s deputies. The allegations, which include charges of being stripped, beaten and chained in padded cells, have proliferated since inmate Orned (Chicken) Gabriel said last month that he was beaten by deputies at the El Cajon Detention Facility.

Soon afterward, allegations arose of a brutal “Rambo Squad” at the jail, and the U.S. attorney’s office began an investigation. Those claims were followed by several similar complaints of beatings at the hands of deputies in the Las Colinas Detention Center for women in Santee, and claims that two women who reportedly hanged themselves in their cells were actually murdered.

On May 4, Bailey sent a memo to County Counsel Lloyd Harmon asking him to review the pending claims against the county and advise the board on what the county’s responsibility is and what action, if any, the board may take. In the memo, Bailey referred to allegations of poor conditions and abusive treatment in the jails:

“I believe the allegations and implications merit close examination by the Board of Supervisors. . . . It is essential the board become adequately informed on these matters so that we can determine if there is any necessary or appropriate action which should be taken because of the potential for serious litigation.”

Harmon is expected to report back to the board in the closed session Wednesday.

However, Bailey said Thursday that he believes the supervisors have little authority over the Sheriff’s Department.

“The sheriff is an elected official, and the only real control we have over him is budgetary control,” he said. “Technically, he works for the (state) attorney general.”

Bailey said the board will probably limit its role to reviewing the claims, which it has the responsibility of resolving.

Golding said she and her colleagues have received many calls recently from constituents concerned about media reports of jail brutality. She said many of the calls came from women worried that they or their teen-age daughters might be arrested for minor violations and subsequently strip-searched by male deputies, as some former inmates have alleged.

“That’s a practice I thought was cut out a long time ago,” Golding said. “Now people are worried, and I think it’s important that the true facts are out and that an alarm is not rung when there’s no need to ring the alarm.”

“We have no authority as a board to tell the sheriff how to manage his department,” she added. “But we certainly have the right to ask for the facts.”

Golding expressed support for Sheriff John Duffy, who she said has a “good working relationship” with the board. But, she added, “that doesn’t mean there aren’t individuals in the system who aren’t behaving properly, and they should be weeded out.”

Separate Investigations

“There is no reason to assume that the sheriff, who is capable of taking action, won’t do so. If something needs to be done, I think he will do it,” she said.

Supervisor John MacDonald said he has also been besieged by calls.

“I have had phone calls from constituents wanting to know what’s going on, and we felt the board needed to be brought up to date on the claims,” he said.

The allegations are already being investigated by the internal affairs division of the Sheriff’s Department, and, in a separate investigation, the FBI is pursuing claims of civil rights violations in the El Cajon, Vista and Las Colinas facilities.

FBI spokesman Gary Laturno said the supervisors’ actions would not have any effect on the agency’s investigation, which is expected to be finished in three to four weeks.

“They have a responsibility, of course, but we have a responsibility to investigate violations of federal statutes, such as civil rights statutes,” Laturno said.

Results Won’t Be Made Public

The results of the FBI investigation will be turned over to the civil rights division of the Justice Department in Washington and to the local U.S. attorney’s office for a judgment on prosecution, he said. The results of the investigation will not be made public.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Robert Takeshta said the department will continue its own internal affairs investigation.

“The only change in procedure is that now the board will be reviewing any claim of excessive force in the jails, but the investigations will continue to be handled by us,” he said.

“There has never been a problem with our investigations here,” Takeshta said. “I’d like to think our department is above reproach.”

Takeshta said he believes that those who complained of excessive force, when contrasted with the many inmates processed by the jails, make up only a small percentage of the inmate population.

Jail crowding was a factor cited repeatedly by the supervisors as the primary cause of the problem.

“We recognize that this is a very touchy time in the jails because we’re still stacking them in like cordwood, and we’re only putting the worst offenders in jail,” Bailey said.

Recent voluntary tests conducted on incoming inmates showed an average of 80% had used drugs within 24 hours of their arrest and booking, he said. “With that many on drugs, of course you’re going to have problems . . . and of course the deputies are pretty tight on their searches because they don’t want that stuff to get into their jails.”

Golding agreed that tensions in the jails are running high because of crowding.

“It’s not going to be solved unless Proposition A is passed,” she said, referring to the initiative that will be put to voters in June and would impose a half-cent sales tax increase for construction of jails and courtrooms.