Sheriff Probing Reports of Rogue Jail Deputies Group
Sheriff Sherman Block is investigating reports that rogue deputies formed a self-styled vigilante group to “discipline” unruly inmates at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and may have been responsible for at least one of the beatings under official scrutiny, department officials said Thursday.
“There are some people in the system who think we are coddling the inmates, and by God, they’re going to set up their own brand of punishment,” said Block. “This is not acceptable to us. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again--people are placed in our custody as punishment, not for punishment.”
The deputies, whom some colleagues referred to as the “posse” and others simply called the “goon squad,” reportedly went so far as to establish coded communications so they could quickly come together in the jail, officials said.
They said they are investigating whether the alleged rogue team was involved in an Aug. 10 beating of a man whom officials decline to identify. He was left with flashlight marks on his back and boot prints on his side, officials said.
In addition, Block and other top officials said they are investigating all incidents in which force was used at Twin Towers to see if there is a pattern of abuse.
Block said the information about an unorthodox group of young deputies came to light when Twin Towers deputies came forward to report the Aug. 10 beating.
One of the reasons the officials suspect codes are being used is that some of the deputies reportedly involved did not belong on the floor where the inmate was housed. That raised questions over how they orchestrated their joint use of force, Block said.
Assistant Sheriff Robert Mann said the department is also looking into whether the deputies misappropriated communications equipment at the jail to signal when it was time to join forces.
He said the district attorney’s office is assisting in the probe and will decide whether to pursue criminal charges.
“We’re looking at it as assault under the color of authority,” Mann said.
“We’re in the process of auditing that whole place over there. I’ve been told that we’re dealing with a group of deputies who are relatively young.”
Officials did not say whether they believed any of these deputies were involved in the Aug. 1 altercation that ended with the death of mentally ill inmate Danny Smith, the event that first triggered the latest wave of official scrutiny at Twin Towers. Block and other officials have said they will not comment on the Smith death until the investigation has been completed.
One source said officials believe at least one deputy was involved in both incidents.
Another deputy, who declined to be identified, said Smith, who was being treated for an undisclosed mental illness, had earned the wrath of many young deputies in his two weeks in the facility because he often “mouthed off.”
Undersheriff Jerry Harper, however, said that as far as he knows, there is “no match. We do not have information that a deputy was involved with both cases.”
The feeling that prisoners were being coddled may have stemmed from recent changes in the treatment of mentally ill inmates.
Under pressure from the Department of Justice, which threatened to sue the Sheriff’s Department over civil rights violations, Twin Towers had been trying to treat mentally ill inmates more as patients than prisoners.
Justice department officials are scheduled to return Sept. 17 to check the progress of the reforms.
Merrick Bobb, the special counsel to the Board of Supervisors investigating problems in the Sheriff’s Department, said he will be looking into allegations of a rogue group as he monitors the probe of the death of Danny Smith.
“I intend to fully report on it,” Bobb said.
According to one source, some members of the deputies group are cooperating with investigators and providing detailed information about beating incidents.
“This is a much more problematic case than the death” of Smith, the source said. “It’s an organized group of guys who decided to take justice into their own hands.”
The official accounts of Smith’s death have been rife with inconsistencies.
For days, the Sheriff’s Department maintained that Smith attacked deputies when his handcuffs were removed.
“During the struggle, Smith collapsed and department members began cardiopulmonary resuscitation,” the press release said.
Later, the department admitted that Smith was handcuffed during the incident.
The Sheriff’s Department faces a $65-million damage claim filed on behalf of Smith’s family.
Sheriff’s Department custody chief Bob Pash said that on the last day of Smith’s life, he was moved from the seventh floor of Twin Towers, which is used for intensive mental health care. He said the move came at the request of mental health staff.
Smith was brought to the fifth floor, where inmates who are on medication and are more stable are often housed, Pash said. Such a move is rare, he said--generally, seventh-floor patients move to a more intermediate type of care on the sixth floor.
Inmates say Smith, who was black, balked at being put into a cell with a Latino who was described by his family as being mentally ill.
The Twin Towers log of the incident says Smith then “turned on and attempted to strike” deputies as they were trying to remove his handcuffs.
It said a deputy pushed Smith away, and he struck his head on “either a bed or a toilet and suffered a 1-inch cut above the right eye.”
“While nursing staff were treating the injury, the inmate went into cardiac arrest,” the log entry said.
Smith’s fellow inmates say deputies slammed Smith to the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back and held a flashlight to his throat. They said deputies leaned on Smith and beat him as he yelled that he couldn’t breathe and had a bad heart.
Inmates say deputies told them he died of a heart attack.
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office has still not announced a cause of death.
Smith, who had a heart condition, had been treated for hypertension days before. Mental health experts say some psychotropic drugs can cause dangerous and even life-threatening reactions when combined with other medications.
According to the mother of his child, Smith was a troubled man who had a history of instability and brushes with the law and sometimes beat her.
He was arrested by police July 16 on charges of possession of a firearm by a convicted narcotics addict, and was being held in lieu of $100,000 bail.
Times staff writer Shawn Hubler contributed to this story.
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