Nearly two years before Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged that jailer brutality was a problem, his command staff raised alarms about excessive force used on inmates in the nation's largest jail system, according to confidential memos reviewed by The Times.
The documents contain disturbing evidence of misconduct in the jails, including cases in which deputies used unnecessary force, then escaped punishment because of shoddy investigations by supervisors.
One of the reports audited more than 100 violent encounters with inmates and found that deputies crafted narratives "dramatized to justify" force. In some cases, the jailers purposely delayed using weapons that could end fights, like pepper spray and stun guns, "to dispense appropriate jailhouse 'justice,' " the report said.
Authorities concluded that some confrontations were triggered by deputies who thought inmates had acted disrespectfully to them — showing "contempt of cop."
A second report found that significant inmate injuries were not documented by deputies or medical staff. The lapse is noteworthy because inmate allegations of excessive force have been dismissed when their documented injuries were not consistent with the force they said jailers used.
Among the most serious problems, according to the records, was the failure of supervisors to interview all witnesses and recommend discipline and training for problem deputies.
When supervisors did push for additional training for underperforming deputies, there was no guarantee it would be carried out. One of the reports cited a case in which a supervisor recommended that four jailers undergo more training, but only two did.
Lt. Mark McCorkle, the author of that report, expressed alarm over this lapse, saying that "it could be quite damaging to the department and expose us to unnecessary liability."
Public scrutiny of the county's jails has intensified since The Times reported in September that federal authorities are investigating reports of inmate abuse and other deputy misconduct. The U.S. attorney's office has demanded a large volume of documents on deputies and others working in the jails, including reports of force used on inmates, since 2009. The county Board of Supervisors has called for reforms and is setting up a commission to investigate the scope of the jails' problems.
After initially defending his department, Baca conceded in the last few weeks that a small percentage of deputies mistreated inmates.
But the internal records reviewed show more systemic problems with how force is used and investigated in the jails.
The warnings from top sheriff's officials echo similar allegations of excessive force and inadequate investigations now being leveled by department outsiders, including the sheriff's watchdog, individual inmates and civil liberties advocates.
Cmdr. James Hellmold, part of a task force recently assembled to implement jail reforms, said the memos never reached Baca's desk. He described the reports as useful but faulted them for not accounting for the large role he said inmates play in provoking the violence.
"The sheriff has acknowledged in part of his self-analysis that he needs to find out what the commanders have done, and what information they had at what time," Hellmold said. "The question for the department is where we go from here to strengthen our jails."
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the memos prompted the department to provide additional use-of-force training to jail managers. Sheriff's officials have disciplined more than 30 jailers in the last two years for beating inmates or covering up the abuse, according to the sheriff's watchdog.
The confidential sheriff's memos focused on force at Men's Central Jail, an aging downtown Los Angeles facility that Baca has said should be torn down and replaced. Inside the 5,000-inmate jail, deputies, including rookies fresh from the Sheriff's Academy, supervise some of the county's most dangerous inmates.
It's unclear from the records what prompted the audits or who ordered them. In the November 2009 report, McCorkle wrote that his conclusions were "by no means … an indictment of deputy personnel" and that the number of force incidents in the jail was down. But, he argued, "the veracity of force events needs to be examined."
In other cases, he did not attribute the force to intentional misconduct, but to poor training, assaults by violent inmates and a lack of proper equipment, like hobble restraints.
He pointed to deputies who were involved in fights over and over again as evidence that some jailers' manner of speaking to inmates "may play a role in inciting assaults."
"While in many instances the use of force was reasonable and justified, the events leading up to the incident were not," the report said.
Jail supervisors, McCorkle wrote, were failing to examine how the deputies could have avoided force and used safer tactics and equipment. None of the audited force investigation reports recommended discipline against deputies, and very few of the more than 100 cases identified potential policy violations.
In his memo, he also questioned whether deputies could intentionally disable cameras on Tasers.
In another audit, dated January 2010, then-Capt. Gregory Johnson reviewed seven force investigations for problems. His report does not include thorough accounts of each incident, but lists significant concerns about all of the cases.
In four of the seven, deputies failed to use their radios to alert supervisors and colleagues that they were in a fight, a practice generally required by the department.
He found several instances in which inmate injuries were not documented. A 25-year-old inmate was subdued by a team of deputies some time after staring one down. According to the inmate, a deputy ordered him against a wall, then grabbed his hands and pushed his neck in, telling him he was in jail for "raping a little girl."
"This entire incident could have been avoided," Johnson concluded.
He discovered that the deputy's report failed to account for a head injury clearly visible in the inmate's video interview. A supervisor's review also "misstates that the inmate's injuries were consistent with the force reported. It does not explain how the inmate sustained injuries to his forehead, ankles and right knee," Johnson wrote.
In that case, one of the deputies had been involved in seven use-of-force incidents in 11 months.
In his report, Johnson, now a commander, expressed skepticism at some of the official accounts. "No inmate witnesses in a hallway full of inmates…?" he asks in one.
"Report claims the contact occurred for the safety of the teachers?" he asked in another. "This is questionable as the teachers had walked past the incident."
Not long after the two audits, the department saw one of its top rookies resign after alleging that his supervisor made him beat a mentally ill inmate and cover it up. The Times reported that Deputy Joshua Sather said that shortly before the beating, his supervisor at the Twin Towers jail told him, "We're gonna go in and teach this guy a lesson."
In that case, sheriff's officials concluded that no misconduct had occurred. The probe apparently broke down, at least in part, because interviews with other involved deputies and the inmate didn't jibe with Sather's account. The inmate's listed injuries — only redness on his face — also seemed inconsistent with a beating.
Since the Times article appeared, the department has reopened its investigation into Sather's allegations.