Sheriff Lee Baca said he would welcome a comprehensive federal civil rights investigation into the Los Angeles County jail system, a significant reversal after a week of harshly criticizing FBI inquiries into allegations of deputy misconduct.
Last week, Baca denounced the FBI’s investigations of his jails, which included smuggling a cellphone to an inmate — a move he said was possibly illegal. He questioned whether the agency was competent to determine wrongdoing.
But as criticism mounted Friday over his oversight of the jails, Baca struck a much more conciliatory tone and acknowledged that there were problems in the jails.
“I see there’s a pattern of disrespect to inmates by a small percent of deputies. But a small percent of deputies is too much. There shouldn’t be any disrespect,” Baca said in an interview with The Times. “We have to change the culture of the jail, improve it.”
Baca, who has been sheriff since 1998, said he still doesn’t approve of the FBI smuggling the phone into the jail. That was part of an undercover sting that targeted a deputy who allegedly accepted a bribe to deliver the phone to a prisoner. But he added that he would let the issue go to allow a fuller examination of what’s happened in the jails.
“The FBI should feel welcome in further vetting the quality of Sheriff’s Department investigations,” he added. “The phone thing is regrettable, but we’ve got to move on.”
Baca said he would accept a so-called pattern and practice investigation of the jails. The sheriff’s shift is important because such an inquiry could lead to federal oversight of the nation’s largest jail system if prosecutors find evidence of systemic civil rights violations.
The Justice Department has already launched such an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination by deputies in the Antelope Valley.
If there are " serious gaps in the performance of deputies in the jail from what they’re trained to do and what they actually do, I’m very interested in knowing,” he added.
U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. declined to comment on Baca’s statements or say whether his department would now launch a pattern and practice investigation.
Baca spoke as two Los Angeles County supervisors went public with criticism of the jails and called for an independent investigation into conditions there. The supervisors said they were reacting to recent reports of deputy abuse, including a Times story this week about a well-regarded rookie who quit the force after a month on the job, accusing his supervisor of making him beat up a mentally ill inmate and then covering it up.
“There needs to be somebody from outside the county family to look at this. And let the chips fall where they may,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.
In calling for the investigation, Yaroslavsky said that having the sheriff’s Office of Independent Review conduct inquiries into the allegations was not enough. Yaroslavsky said he believed the office, which monitors department discipline of deputies, reviewed allegations in a light favorable to the Sheriff’s Department and he questioned the agency’s independence.
“Frankly I think they may be very much a part of the problem,” he said. “I don’t think we’re getting as timely a report from the OIR, nor do I think we’re getting as unbiased a report from the OIR, as we can expect.”
Michael Gennaco, who heads the Office of Independent Review, said he was disappointed to hear the criticism. He defended his agency’s independence and noted that supervisors last year asked him to oversee discipline of the county’s probation department.
He acknowledged that the office’s work inside the department “could lead some to believe that we are essentially working as partners with the department rather than overseers…. We’re not partners.”
Supervisor Gloria Molina said she, too, was disappointed with Gennaco and was disturbed to read about the rookie deputy’s allegations.
“With all due respect to the sheriff, there’s no defense here,” Molina said. “When you have another law enforcement agency, the FBI, having to do a sting in one of our county jails, it speaks volumes about our neglect…. Somehow we’re not keeping a good eye on some of these things.”
Last week, two pastors and a Hollywood producer signed sworn statements filed in court saying they witnessed deputies attacking inmates.
The FBI has confirmed that it is looking into at least two inmates’ allegations of abuse. The bureau is also investigating a January incident in which an ACLU monitor said she witnessed two deputies beating an unconscious inmate for two minutes.