In early 1992, while the nation was focused on the beating of Rodney G. King and the Christopher Commission inquiry that followed, an equally important investigative body was appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Headed by retired Superior Court Judge James G. Kolts, it examined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the accelerating accusations of discourtesy, brutality and unnecessary shootings that had cost the county $50 million in judgments, settlements and attorney’s fees during the preceding four years.
After six months of investigation of the LACSD--an organization that polices 2.5 million people and runs the nation’s largest urban jail system-the Kolts Report was issued. It was a withering account of the department’s failure of leadership, breakdown in discipline and brutal style of policing in African American and Latino communities and the jails.
Helping spearhead that investigation and lead a staff of more than 60 lawyers, criminologists and social scientists, was Merrick J. Bobb, now 52, a precise, earnest, gray-haired man.
When the King beating occurred, Bobb, a graduate of Dartmouth College and UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall law school, was an attorney specializing in corporate litigation and government-agency work, first at Warren Christopher’s old-line law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, and then at Tuttle & Taylor. Volunteering to serve on the Christopher Commission, the Denver, Colo., native became a deputy general counsel, helping lead the investigation into the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force. The result was a careful but unequivocally worded section of the report delineating the LAPD’s inability to hold its officers accountable for excessive violence.
This ultimately led to Bobb’s appointment to the Kolts staff. Following publication of the group’s report in ’92, Bobb succeeded Kolts as special counsel. Since then, Bobb has issued nine tellingly detailed, often critical semiannual reports.
In so doing, he has managed to avoid the political pitfalls inherent in criticizing a department headed by Sheriff Sherman Block--a powerful countywide elected official. (Block, who has led the LACSD for 16 years, is currently locked in a tight race with former Sheriff’s Department Chief Lee Baca for reelection in November.)
Bobb’s most recent report was issued in June. Focusing on the Century station in South-Central Los Angeles, it concluded that inexperienced and undersupervised deputies were provoking unnecessary confrontations, creating dangerous situations and shooting people unnecessarily.
Earlier reports in 1997 credited the department for becoming “more tightly managed, open, questioning, reflective and cognizant of ... its performance.” But they also criticized the jail system for having “far too many instances of careless or inhumane treatment.” It noted the system’s continuing racial riots, its appalling treatment of mentally ill inmates and its mistaken release of prisoners accused of serious crimes including murder while keeping others incarcerated months beyond their release dates. A 1997 report also described how guards encouraged inmates to severely beat other prisoners. Since the June report, allegations have surfaced of county guards beating prisoners, including the Aug. 1 death of Danny Smith, a mentally ill inmate who was allegedly choked or beaten to death by deputies while handcuffed. An Aug. 10 beating incident allegedly involved a group of “vigilante” employees.
Sitting for a recent interview, in shirt sleeves in a conference room at his downtown law offices, Bobb displays a lawyerly detachment and need to be politic. But also apparent is his passionate belief in the necessity of his work.
Question: What was the situation you found in the initial ’92 Kolts investigation?
Answer: We found that there was an alarming lack of accountability within the Sheriff’s Department for determining whether police misconduct had occurred and in dealing with its consequences. Taxpayers were paying out large sums in [police brutality and shooting cases] where it was possible to have controlled for those kinds of situations.
Q: Where was the management breakdown?
A: In many places -- among sergeants and lieutenants dealing directly with police officers, with captains who ran the stations, with commanders and bureau chiefs and with top police executives.
Q: You didn’t mention Sheriff Block. Didn’t the buck stop with him?
A: Well, the buck does stop with the sheriff, as ultimate head of the department. But we also saw that Sheriff Block was attempting to address the problems we’d raised, in good faith, and was being helpful. That was important to us.
Q: But he was the chief executive when this breakdown in officer accountability occurred -- 10 years after he’d been in office.
A: I’m resisting to some extent saying, “Yes, the buck stops with Sherman Block.” It’s much more instructive and productive to talk about problems and how to solve them than personalities and trying to focus blame.
Q: But internal accountability is certainly a responsibility of the sheriff, and how well he carries it out does reflect on his job performance.
A: Unquestionably so.
Q: What problems did both the Sheriff’s Department and LAPD share?
A: A lack of coordination of information about police misconduct. They were not managing the problems. There was no systematic tracking of officers who might engage in misconduct, no tracking of citizen complaints, no tracking of use-of-force histories or of lawsuits. There was no basic information so that a manager could say: What does it mean that Deputy X has used force on four occasions within the last six months or has generated four sustained citizen complaints? The LAPD still does not have an adequate system. The Sheriff’s Department now does, and can keep track [of all these things].
Q: Under the state constitution, the County Board of Supervisors has no operational control over the sheriff. Would it be better in terms of accountability if it did?
A: It would take a state constitutional amendment for that to happen. But the question you’re getting at is: What’s the best kind of civilian oversight for a police department? I think it’s a system that requires frequent outside reporting based on unrestricted access to the department, its documents and individuals. I’m doing that now on a contract basis. Another way to do it would be to have the county create an inspector general as its own, permanent investigative arm.
Q: What have been the most intractable problems that you’ve experienced?
A: The problems in the jails. On any day 18,000 to 20,000 people are incarcerated in the county jail system, and 200,000 flow in and out every year. Every day, about 500 inmates enter the system and 500 leave. That’s a system of tremendous movement.
But it was built to house people who’d committed relatively minor offenses, were serving sentences of a year or less, only needed rudimentary medical care, were not particularly dangerous and could be tracked through careful paperwork.
But since the implementation of three strikes in 1994, the situation has changed dramatically. Now, about 70% are awaiting trial on a second or third strike carrying long or even life sentences, and they can’t afford to plea bargain. They are more desperate and are staying for significant periods before trial. Some have state prison histories, and others more acute medical, psychological or other problems.
The jails were not built to deal long-term with these problems. So we’ve seen a breakdown in care for the mentally ill, in medical care, in providing adequate housing and in the system of releasing prisoners. We’ve also seen increased rioting and unrest.
Q: There has been overcrowding and other problems for a long time. Why haven’t they been gradually taken care of?
A: They hit all at once, and very hard. Systems that had been functioning on at least a marginal basis all of a sudden were overloaded. And the systems are interrelated--you can’t solve one without attending to another.
Q: In recent months there have been allegations that a vigilante group that includes seven deputies, and perhaps six more, has been “punishing” mentally ill inmates in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility because they had it too soft in their new cells. What’s your reaction?
A: The supervisors have especially requested that I monitor the Danny Smith investigation. I also intend to look at the [alleged vigilante] situation for my next report.
Q. Are the Sheriff’s Department’s dual tasks of law enforcement and corrections manageable by one individual?
A: I think they are. There are departments all over the country with those dual tasks. The real question is resources. That’s where I see the breakdowns -- in not having computers and computerized data to track prisoners or money to house and care for the onslaught of prisoners. And that requires a countywide response.
Q: The “chronic, serious” problems you found at the Century station seem extraordinary: placing inexperienced officers in the most violent station; an officer planting false evidence; excessive numbers of officer-involved shootings. This is your ninth report; how can this kind of situation still exist?
A: The problems at the Century station are serious. But if attention continues to be focused on holding deputies, station captains and department executives accountable, the problems will abate. Shootings to date at the Century station in 1998 are way down.
Q: Deputies spent as much as six years as guards in jails before they were assigned to patrol. That could sour a young person.
A: That length of time is stultifying. I have a concern about the diminishing of deputies’ idealism, zeal for the job and ability to relate to the communities that they serve. The department is at least thinking about a two-track system of deputies hired for custodial duties and others for patrol.
Q: In July, the county was ordered to pay $24 million in a 1989 case involving the arrest and beating of 36 people attending a bridal shower.
A: That case is almost a classic example of pre-Kolts lack of procedures. Now, that kind of incident is being dealt with in a different way. Deputies are being better trained to first assess such a situation and weigh the alternatives before deciding the best way to tactically deal with a loud, drunken party or other difficult situations. To ask what’s the best way to bring a dangerous situation under control without harm to themselves but using minimal force. As a result of new training and procedures, we’ve seen a $30-million decline in money paid out by the county for police misconduct.
Q: In terms of public awareness, this bridal-shower incident is the Sheriff’s Department’s Rodney King. Yet, the department continues to maintain its deputies did nothing wrong, and you say you don’t have any opinion about the incident.
A: My responsibility was not to determine if the deputies acted rightly or wrongly, but how to limit such incidents in the future. But I will say again that investigations are better-handled today than they were in the pre-Kolts days.
Q: So has the word filtered down to the beat cop?
A. Yes. But more important, there are now oversight mechanisms to control what happens on the street that didn’t exist in 1989.
Q: Are those mechanisms taken seriously?
A. If they’re not taken seriously in one place they’re going to be taken seriously in another. A lot of redundant, overlapping investigative systems are now in place if a deputy uses questionable force: oral and written reports; a chain of review; investigation by Internal Affairs if there is a suspicious injury; an ombudsman if a citizen is unhappy with an investigation; my staff and I doing ongoing investigations; a computerized system that links the type of use of force with this particular deputy and station and provides clues and questions to be asked. So somewhere along the line, the department is going to be forced to confront the incident.
Q: And are you satisfied that is now the case?
A: I’m satisfied that that is becoming the case.
Q: What are your indices showing?
A. That the department’s as proactive [in looking for street crime] as in the past, yet lawsuits and settlements have declined significantly in each year since they crested in ’92 or ’93.
Q: What about citizen complaints?
A: Every citizen complaint is supposed to be recorded and tracked. When the tracking system began in 1993, the department had thousands of complaints instead of handfuls. But they have now slowly started to drift down. But I’m less concerned with numbers than the conduct being alleged. Is it about rudeness -- or broken bones?
And there’s beginning to be a shift away from allegations about being beaten over the head with a nightstick. Not that the department isn’t still getting serious use-of-force complaints. It is. But it’s not as great a concern as a couple of years ago.