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California

D.A. in the dark on jail probes

Even as a sergeant shouted, “Stop hitting him! Stop hitting him!,” Deputy Marcos Stout continued punching an inmate in the head. Then, with the inmate on the concrete floor, Stout landed his knee on the man’s skull.

Lawyers for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department described the deputy’s actions as “callous and brutal behavior toward a helpless and unresisting person.”

Though Stout’s excessive force was egregious enough to get him fired, prosecutors did not charge him with a crime — but not because they concluded that the violence wasn’t criminal, according to interviews. They never knew about it.

PHOTOS: Men’s Central Jail

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In several cases in recent years, deputies who were disciplined or even fired for abusing inmates escaped criminal scrutiny because Sheriff’s Department officials chose not to give the evidence to the district attorney’s office, opting to handle the cases internally.

Law enforcement experts interviewed by the Los Angeles Times said the department should routinely conduct criminal investigations of brutality claims and forward the results to prosecutors to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

“Just because you’re part of the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t mean you can commit battery with impunity,” said Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer and current professor studying police use of force at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The Sheriff’s Department’s watchdog recommended in October that excessive force complaints from the jails be investigated for criminal wrongdoing and presented to the district attorney. Michael Gennaco, who heads the county’s Office of Independent Review, told The Times that the department should send to prosecutors all investigations of excessive force in which an inmate suffered significant injuries or the force was prolonged.

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At the request of The Times, Gennaco identified cases in which the department fired or suspended deputies for using excessive force but did not formally present the evidence to prosecutors. Among the cases:

— A deputy was fired for putting his hand around the throat of an inmate who had smirked at deputies, pushing him into a glass window and throwing him to the ground. The deputy then claimed the inmate had fallen accidentally and asked another deputy who had witnessed the incident to corroborate his story.

— Deputies reported that one of their colleagues used unreasonable force on an inmate who had assaulted him. They said he delivered multiple elbow strikes while the inmate appeared to be unconscious and bleeding profusely from his head. The inmate suffered serious injuries, including brain swelling, and required surgery. The deputy was fired.

— A security camera recorded a deputy throwing an object at an inmate then rushing toward him and pushing him against the wall, with the deputy placing his forearm into the back of the inmate’s head. The deputy never reported the force and neither did eight other deputies who witnessed the incident. The inmate’s injuries were minor, Gennaco said. Nevertheless, the deputy was suspended; Gennaco’s report does not say for how long.

Public scrutiny of the jails intensified after The Times reported in September that the FBI is investigating allegations of inmate abuse and other jailer misconduct. The U.S. attorney’s office has demanded a large number of documents on deputies and others working in the jails, including reports of force used on inmates, since 2009. Confidential documents reviewed by The Times show that jail managers were raising alarms about excessive force and shoddy internal investigations two years ago.

Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. James Hellmold, part of a task force recently assembled to implement jail reforms, said custody supervisors weigh whether force by deputies was unnecessary and excessive before deciding whether to refer the matter to internal criminal investigators.

Cases in which force was appropriate but a deputy used too much or used force for too long are generally reviewed for discipline, not criminal charges, he said. The department also reviews whether the violence was provoked by the inmate before deciding whether to conduct a criminal probe.

“Most of our uses of force, even when they’re inappropriate, are provoked by the inmate,” Hellmold said. “That’s the reality of the job.”

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Sheriff Lee Baca said conducting criminal investigations of excessive force can delay imposing workplace discipline. But he acknowledged that the department should forward evidence to prosecutors when deputies are fired or suspended for using too much force. He said it was “a mistake” not to have done so in the past.

“If we think we’re going to fire somebody and believed they used excessive force, it should also be sent to the D.A.'s office,” he said. “Let the D.A. make the determination.”

The department does send the district attorney’s office some allegations of excessive force against jail deputies. Prosecutors have rejected most of those cases, often noting that the claims rely on inmates with long criminal records or mental illnesses that make them unconvincing witnesses.

Nevertheless, three deputies were convicted of assault last year. In that case, prosecutors built a case around another deputy who told investigators he saw the three deputies punch and kick an inmate who had been disrespectful to a guard. The inmate suffered a fractured cheekbone and injuries to his left ear, rib cage and face.

Discipline of deputies and other law enforcement officers is confidential under state law. But details about the Sheriff’s Department’s findings in Stout’s case are laid out in a lawsuit, with which the former deputy filed seeking to win back his job, and in a report by Gennaco.

According to the records, the violence took place in July 2006 as Stout kept watch over inmate Derrick Gathrite, who was ordered to sit on the floor of a jail hallway and face the wall. Court and prison records show that Gathrite is a convicted child molester who days earlier had been sentenced to prison for failing to register as a sex offender.

As Deputy Theresa Serna searched the inmate’s belongings, Gathrite turned around and reached toward Serna. Stout squirted the inmate with pepper spray and began punching him.

Matthew Vander Horck, then a sergeant, ran toward the disturbance, shouting at Stout to stop. The inmate, he later said, lay in a fetal position, trying to ward off blows from the deputy.

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Once Gathrite was handcuffed, the sergeant ordered Stout to stand the inmate up. The deputy began to raise Gathrite to his feet but let him go, allowing the inmate to fall back and strike his head against the concrete floor.

Vander Horck reported that Stout had punched the inmate eight times, elbowed him twice and kneed him once. The inmate was crying, saying he was sorry and asking the deputy to stop hitting him.

“It looked like it was unprovoked and definitely unnecessary to me,” Vander Horck told an internal affairs investigator.

Gathrite suffered a cut lip, bruises and swelling to his face and head.

Stout, then a deputy for three years, argued that the force was reasonable. He said that Gathrite was crawling toward Serna and that he feared the inmate was attempting to assault her.

Stout said he did not hear Vander Horck order him to stop, and he disputed the sergeant’s account, saying he struck the inmate three to four times and never dropped a knee onto the inmate’s head. Vander Horck, he argued, had not seen the entire incident and had been up to 75 feet away.

Sheriff’s Department executives fired Stout, concluding that he used excessive force, failed to fully report force to his supervisor and made false statements to internal affairs investigators. Stout appealed to the county’s civil service commission, which found that his account lacked credibility and upheld his firing.

In a lawsuit aimed at winning Stout’s job back, his lawyers argued that the department had not fired other deputies accused of similar conduct. In one 2005 case they cited, a deputy was suspended for 30 days after he failed to report his use of force and tried to cover up his actions. In 2006, the department gave another deputy a 30-day suspension after he intentionally beat two inmates without excuse, failed to immediately notify his supervisor and then gave false information to department investigators.

A judge rejected Stout’s arguments and upheld his firing.

PHOTOS: Men’s Central Jail

jack.leonard@latimes.com

robert.faturechi@latimes.com


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