Contending that allegations of prisoner mistreatment have “shattered” public faith in the Los Angeles County jail system, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved on Tuesday an outside oversight committee and measures that could potentially overhaul the sheriff’s use-of-force policy.
The moves followed weeks of reports in The Times and other organizations detailing allegations of abuse of inmates and a code of silence within the Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the nation’s largest jail system. The FBI is also investigating potential misconduct.
One motion, written by Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas, creates a seven-person committee selected by the board to review the jails and make recommendations to fix any problems. The committee would partly rely on a support staff of volunteer lawyers from private firms and would be funded by money normally used to pay legal judgments and damages.
Yaroslavsky said he did not think the committee would cost a “significant amount of money” and could help offset millions of dollars in future legal costs.
Ridley-Thomas said he believed outsiders with “fresh eyes” could do a more thorough investigation.
“To leave it exclusively under the domain of the sheriff is problematic,” he said.
Some supervisors wondered how much authority the group would have, especially given that Sheriff Lee Baca is an elected official.
“For the most part, the sheriff can do whatever he wants to,” said Gloria Molina, who noted that the board still controlled the department’s budget and could therefore influence the sheriff’s jail management.
For the committee to be effective, supervisors would have to appoint members willing to make tough choices, said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, a persistent critic of Baca’s jailers.
“They have to be able to say: ‘I don’t care what the board wants me to tell them. I’m going to tell them what they need to know,’ ” Eliasberg said.
The supervisors’ second action calls for rotating deputies from jail to jail, which Baca has said he is open to considering, as well as making jail supervisors spend more time walking cell rows and reporting suspicious inmate injuries.
Molina, the plan’s author, also recommended banning the use of heavy flashlights to subdue inmates, forbidding head strikes and installing more cameras in jails.
Representatives with the deputies union objected to the flashlight restriction, saying that they are less cumbersome than batons in close quarters and that deputies are trained not to strike inmates in the head unless the situation is exceptional.
They also said batons are potentially more dangerous than flashlights because they are larger and can generate more force.
“It’s like taking a 14-inch stick and … replacing it with a baseball bat,” said Mark Divis, vice president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
The group also objected to potentially putting cameras on deputies on grounds that they could be awkward and intrusive.
Molina asked for an additional report within two weeks about the union’s concerns.
All of Tuesday’s actions could undercut Baca, who has resisted outside investigation of his agency, but supervisors said the moves were necessary.
“I think [Baca] needs help and he recognizes he needs help,” Yaroslavsky said.
Baca initially decried the federal probe for legal reasons but has softened his tone and admitted that he has done a poor job of overseeing the jails. He did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, but Molina said that she heard from him earlier this week and that he generally supported the moves.
Baca is “very open to listening to comments and suggestions” and does not object to the committee, said Nicole Nishida, a sheriff’s spokeswoman.
Molina expressed some impatience with Baca and the pace of reform, pointing to earlier recommendations that were not implemented.
“I’ve heard it before,” she said. “We need to be ever more vigilant.... This is a very troubling issue.”