The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has tolerated “neo-Nazi-like” and “Ku Klux Klan-style” activities inside the men’s Central Jail in a pattern of discrimination against black deputies and inmates alike, a former deputy alleged Monday in federal court.
The allegations are contained in a lawsuit brought by Eugene A. Harris, 22, who resigned as a probationary deputy earlier this year after being accused of stealing one inmate’s candy bar and another’s hair brush. He is seeking reinstatement.
In the lawsuit, Harris alleged that the Sheriff’s Department has failed to investigate properly two incidents of cross burnings by white deputies and allowed supervisors to press “trumped-up” charges that led to his resignation.
The suit claims that jail management has “allowed and tolerated Sheriff’s Department employees to become involved in neo-Nazi activities within the Central Men’s Jail, including ‘cross burnings,’ Nazi memorabilia within employees’ lockers and other acts . . . fostering racial divisiveness and subjecting (Harris) and all black employees and inmates to racial hatred, ridicule and humiliation.”
Harris’ lawsuit comes as investigations into allegations of racially motivated misconduct at the facility--confined primarily to wards where black gang members are kept--have been announced by the Sheriff’s Internal Investigations Bureau, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
The investigations in part were prompted by testimony two months ago at a Civil Service hearing that there had been cross burnings in the jail. Subsequently, sources said that crosses were set afire in sections housing so-called Crips and Bloods gang members.
Capt. William Hinkle, who commands what is the nation’s largest county jail, declined comment on Harris’ charges of racism pending completion of an internal investigation into the cross-burning allegations.
He said Harris was discharged for “violating his oath of office” by stealing.
Hinkle confirmed five weeks ago that the cross-burning incidents were under investigation. The next day, the jail commander announced that he had transferred five white jailers out of the facility for allegedly employing “excessive force” against black gang inmates in an unrelated incident.
NAACP officials subsequently told reporters that their organization had received letters from black jail inmates chronicling “what appears to be racial harassment.” James Martin, the NAACP’s Western regional director, said jail interviews “corroborated” charges that jailers have beaten shackled black inmates, refused medical treatment, used racial slurs and forced prisoners to sit naked and chained in a shower, while being mocked.
Martin expressed concern that some white jailers may be under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, which has made cross burnings a symbol of racial hatred.
Despite the flurry of investigative activity in the jail, Hinkle insisted in an interview last month that nothing was seriously amiss. He suggested that the cross-burning reports, as well as complaints of excessive force, were “isolated incidents” involving black gang members. No policy changes have been made because of the inquiries, he said.
Hinkle admitted that some jailers may have talked about the Klan. He suggested, however, that if this was true, it probably was a case of “mind-mouth dysfunction,” of a deputy saying “something without thinking.” Although authorities have not confirmed that crosses were burned, jailers who asked to remain anonymous have described for The Times how white deputies twice set crosses afire in quarters housing Bloods and Crips.
The first cross, the sources said, was burned in a corridor outside Module 4300, as Bloods were filing out for breakfast one morning in late 1987. The second was set afire in January, 1988, in Module 4800, which then housed Crips, they said. In the second incident, they said, white deputies played “heavy metal” music, set fire to a towel and then burned a cross made from mop handles inside of Module 4800’s control booth.
Roosevelt Tellis and Daryl Ransom, black inmates facing murder charges, were in the Crips module at the time of the second cross burning and recalled the alleged incident in an interview.
‘We Had Been Invaded’
“We took it that we had been invaded by the Ku Klux Klan or some sort of white supremacy party,” Tellis said in a February interview. “We filed complaints, but they were ignored, and we were threatened and told to leave it alone.”
Tellis and Ransom said that for days afterward, the window where the burning occurred was stained with the outline of a cross.
When Sheriff Sherman Block was asked about the cross-burning reports in late January, he wondered why the incidents, if true, had not been reported earlier.
“If they knew about it, why didn’t it make its way up (the chain of command) as it should have?” he asked.
Deputies inside the jail insisted in interviews that both cross burnings were known to lower-level supervisors and that nothing was done about them for more than a year, until the Civil Service testimony.
Hinkle described black “gang-bangers” as one of the “most troublesome aspects” of running the jail. They must be strictly segregated, he said. Both gangs have rioted in the past: the Crips in 1985 and the Bloods in 1986.
Persuading deputies to work in black gang modules has not always been easy, Hinkle said. The situation was worse when the Crips were kept in multiperson cells on the fourth floor, a policy that he has changed in his year at the helm.
“During the evening hours, when they (the Crips) were in 4800, the sound was almost unbearable,” Hinkle said. “It was a lot of chanting. A lot of singing. A lot of shouting back and forth, up and down the rows. And a lot of times when one ‘set’ was agitating another.”
According to Hinkle, the difficulties with the Crips changed dramatically late last year when about 300 gang members were moved into single-man cells on the second floor. Now, he said, cells are clean and it is “very, very quiet.”
A deputy who works in the jail said, however, that the problems of racism and brutality toward blacks have not been solved by the new policy.
“It’s like a kennel,” said the veteran jailer, who asked not to be identified. “They put you in there. You’ve never worked with blacks before, let alone these kind of blacks. You’ve never controlled men before. . . . It can be overwhelming for some of these people, and they’re scared to death. . . . You’re dealing with people who are angry. . . . You’re dealing with men who are at war, who consider themselves at war with other people.
“Then this peach-faced deputy walks in. . . . You have different cultures rubbing against each other.”
‘Chain Us Up’
Tellis and Ransom complained that they and other black gang members are “treated like dogs.”
Deputies address black inmates with racial epithets “and chain us up when we’re taken out of the module,” Tellis said.
On a recent night, a Crips member who identified himself as Frank Miller pointed to an inscription on the wall just below a shelf in the module’s locked control booth. It read, “Piru CK,” interpreted as “Piru Crip Killer,” a street threat used by the Bloods.
“A deputy wrote that,” Miller alleged.
Charges that white supervisors discriminate against black deputies in Central Jail will be explored with testimony by white jailers when the Harris case comes to trail, according to his lawyer, Laurence B. Labovitz.
The lawsuit names as defendants Los Angeles County, Block, Undersheriff Robert A. Edmonds and two sergeants. It seeks Harris’ reinstatement, back pay and unspecified damages.