Calls Mount for Probe of Sheriff’s Department : Law enforcement: Officials deny that deputies are using excessive force as agency faces more turmoil.
Fatal shootings by sheriff’s deputies in Ladera Heights and East Los Angeles in the last two weeks have raised new concerns about excessive force by deputies, who have already shot and killed more people this year than in three of the past five years.
Demands for an independent investigation of the Sheriff’s Department, along the lines of the recent Christopher Commission probe of racism and brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department, are mounting across Los Angeles County.
Angry criticism of the department extends from the East Los Angeles housing project where a deputy killed a gang member two weeks ago to a Lynwood neighborhood where residents last year accused deputies of engaging in a wave of wanton shootings and beatings. The Los Angeles City Council last week joined the outcry.
Sheriff’s Department officials, while offering no specific explanations for the increase in fatal shootings, said the upsurge should be viewed in the context of an increasingly hostile and violent county. They point to rising gang activity, population growth, deadly drug-related crimes and a growing number of guns on the street.
“Police officers are going to have some violent conflicts in their jobs,” said department spokesman Lt. Jeff Springs. “They are difficult for all involved. . . . We are trying to keep a broad and open mind about all of the aspects of this, and we hope the communities that we serve and the people involved will try to maintain a broad outlook too.”
The latest shootings by deputies--and the protests they have generated--come during a period of extraordinary turbulence for the Sheriff’s Department. Once lauded as a model law enforcement agency with an unblemished reputation, the department has been shaken in recent years by a series of controversies, including one of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of local law enforcement, which has already landed seven deputies in jail.
“There is a lot of outrage and a lot of tension,” said Ralph Sutton of the Brotherhood Crusade, a social services agency in South-Central Los Angeles. “The only way we can support the efforts of law enforcement is if the inner workings of law enforcement agencies are working for the people and not against them.”
Sheriff’s deputies have shot and killed at least 16 people this year, more than in 1986, 1988 or 1989, according to statistics on deputy-involved shootings kept by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The highest total for the five-year period was 19 in 1987. Statistics before 1986 are not available.
“They are out of control, totally out of control,” said Virginia Reade, former regional director of the Mexican-American Political Assn., who was among those trying to ease tension at the Ramona Gardens housing project after a deputy shot and killed a 19-year-old Latino there two weeks ago. Members of the group joined several dozen protesters Saturday outside the department’s East Los Angeles station to repeat calls for an independent investigation.
Despite growing criticism after the two recent shootings, Sheriff Sherman Block has refused to order an independent inquiry, arguing that because he is an elected official, the ballot box serves as the ultimate independent review of his department’s performance. Facing mainly token opposition, Block has won lopsided victories in all three elections since his appointment in 1982.
Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors sided with Block, rejecting the request from the Los Angeles City Council for an independent investigation. In an apparent gesture to critics, the board voted Thursday to ask Block to report what recommendations from the Christopher Commission report he plans to implement in the Sheriff’s Department.
“I have great confidence in the sheriff,” said Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, reflecting sentiment on the board.
Block was not available for comment last week, but spokesman Springs defended the department’s record amid the stepped-up criticism after the Ramona Gardens and Ladera Heights shootings. Springs said the department is conducting its own investigations of the two incidents, which it does in all deputy-involved shootings.
“In fairness to the deputies involved, in fairness to the families of the deceased, and in fairness to the community we serve, the department should be allowed to complete its investigation before it is criticized,” Springs said. “Allow us to do our job and see how well we do it before we are taken to task on it.”
Critics point to a series of problems within the department during the past few years as grounds for continued skepticism. Among them:
* A massive drug money-skimming scheme, which first surfaced two years ago and involves more than $1 million, has left the department reeling with seven members of its elite narcotics investigations teams in prison, five more deputies on trial, two others awaiting a court hearing and another dozen deputies riding out suspensions and wondering if they will be indicted. The scandal brought anti-drug efforts in the department to a virtual standstill for months.
* The department has been battling allegations in a civil rights lawsuit that deputies at its Lynwood station were engaged last year in systematic beatings of residents and used excessive force to cow suspected gang members. Last month, lawyers for the residents asked a federal judge to take control of the station as the only way to stop “an institutionally condoned reign of terror.” A hearing is expected next month.
* The department has been stung by published reports that a white supremacist group called the Vikings was allegedly operating at the same Lynwood station. When the department subsequently transferred five Lynwood deputies to other stations, four sued the department contending that they were wrongfully linked to the racist group. Deputy Jason Mann, a six-year veteran who shot and killed the Ramona Gardens gang member Aug. 3, was among those transferred after the allegations surfaced.
* A study of excessive force lawsuits by The Times last year found that during a three-year period, the county had paid out $8.5 million in settlements and jury awards. Since then, in two cases alone, the county agreed in April to pay $2.1 million to the families of two jail inmates who died in the Sheriff’s Department’s custody. In one case, a 62-year-old man who had been arrested on drunk driving charges suffered a broken neck while in County Jail. In the second, a 49-year-old man died from a blood clot after he was strapped for six days to a cot in the jail’s psychiatric ward.
* This summer, three deputies at the Temple City station were arrested on suspicion of pulling motorists over for traffic violations and then allegedly stealing their credit cards to buy jewelry, guns, sporting goods, electronic equipment and clothing.
“This is not a fun time to be in law enforcement,” said one sheriff’s deputy who asked not to be identified.
The 10-year veteran lamented his department’s recent troubles and said he feared a backlash such as the one that struck the Los Angeles Police Department after the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney G. King in March. Furor over the King incident led to the independent review of the Police Department by the Christopher Commission, which, among other things, recommended the retirement of Chief Daryl F. Gates.
“It’s hard working the streets on patrol with all this going on,” the deputy said. “You just want to keep your head down and do your job. But it’s hard with what’s going on.”
To department critics, what has been going on in the Sheriff’s Department has been a pattern of misconduct among deputies that has overshadowed the work of most of its 8,000 officers.
“Sure, there are lot of deputies who do their job,” said Oscar Gutierrez, an attorney who handles police abuse cases for the Latino Community Justice Center in Boyle Heights. “But there are bad deputies, and Block doesn’t get rid of deadwood or dangerous wood in his department.”
Attorney John Burton said he and other attorneys who have sued the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department in excessive force cases are mystified by Block’s reputation among many people for running a well-managed department with few disciplinary problems.
“We’ve been kind of puzzled that Block and the Sheriff’s Department seem to have been getting a free ride,” Burton said. “To us, that agency is worse than the LAPD.”
Springs, the department spokesman, challenged the assertion that the sheriff has been lax in dealing with excessive force and other misconduct complaints.
“When we have misconduct in our department or controversy that is identified as misconduct, we deal with it, including discharging someone if necessary,” Springs said.
The law allows deputies to use “reasonable force” when necessary, and the department examines those cases in which force is used to determine if any exceed that limitation, Springs said.
Springs also said the department has streamlined its handling of misconduct complaints in the wake of The Times investigation into excessive force complaints and county payouts.
Under the Office of Professional and Ethical Standards, which was established this year, the department reviews misconduct complaints against deputies and reports directly to Block, he said.
The OPES is headed by a commander and handles all internal affairs investigations and shooting complaints, including the incidents at Ramona Gardens and Ladera Heights.
In the most recent shooting Tuesday, two deputies opened fire on a former mental patient in the back yard of his mother’s Ladera Heights home after he allegedly reached toward a knife and grabbed the leg of one of the deputies. Keith Hamilton was hit nine times and pronounced dead at the scene.
Deputies Kelly Enos and Paul McCready were relieved of duty with pay while the investigation continues. One witness who disputed the deputies’ account of the incident contends that the deputies placed a metallic object on or near Hamilton’s body after he was shot.
In the shooting two weeks ago, Arturo Jimenez, a gang member in the Ramona Gardens housing project, was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in the early morning hours after allegedly assaulting a second deputy with a beer bottle and a metal flashlight.
In that case, witnesses also disputed the official version of events, claiming that the deputy overreacted to events and unnecessarily fired his weapon.
Deputy Jason Mann, who shot and killed Jimenez, has been reassigned to administrative duties while his partner, Dana Ellison, is recuperating from injuries sustained in the incident, department officials said. Both deputies remain on duty.
According to court records, Mann and Enos had worked together at the Lynwood station before they transferred to East Los Angeles and Marina del Rey, respectively. Both also were involved in an incident last September that resulted in a civil rights lawsuit filed by a Lynwood man.
Alan Brahier claims he was beaten by deputies after a car chase that began after he had been arguing with and pushing his mother. When his mother summoned deputies, Brahier fled and was pursued by deputies until he crashed into a brick wall. Deputies dragged him from the car by his hair and beat him with metal flashlights, said Brahier, who claimed that he suffered a head wound that required 40 stitches.
In his report on the incident, Mann denied that any deputy used excessive force. Mann said he helped pull Brahier out of the smashed car and that the motorist’s “body weight and our momentum caused Mr. Brahier to fall out of the vehicle. During the fall, his head hit debris on the ground.”
Mann said that Brahier then crawled under the car and had to be pulled out by Enos. In his written statement, Enos claimed that Brahier appeared to be driving under the influence as he led deputies on a high-speed chase. He also denied using excessive force against Brahier.