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Anonymous testimony at issue in probe of L.A. County jail abuse

The special commission investigating allegations of abuse inside the Los Angeles County jails is discussing the possibility of allowing jail deputies to testify anonymously.

Some commissioners are considering the idea as a way to combat what the sheriff’s independent watchdog described as a code of silence that exists among some jail deputies that has prevented investigators in the past from getting to the bottom of some abuse allegations.

One commissioner, the Rev. Cecil Murray, said in an interview that he would even consider partial criminal immunity for deputies who admit involvement in a crime.

“We must find a way to protect our witnesses,” Murray said. “In every group there is corruption and those who are corrupt would find a way to punish the ones who expose the corruption.”

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Sheriff Lee Baca, however, said through a spokesman that he opposed criminal immunity for deputies. His spokesman said Baca supports the commission’s work but does not want deputies who admit involvement in crimes to be allowed to remain anonymous.

“The sheriff believes the commission can do whatever it wants, but…if someone’s reporting a crime, we have to be able to investigate it,” said spokesman Steve Whitmore. “If someone confesses involvement in a crime, we would want to know.”

The jails are currently under federal investigation over allegations of inmate abuse and other deputy misconduct. County supervisors created the commission to assess the jail’s woes. Meanwhile, Baca has created his own task forces to implement reforms and examine old allegations of abuse.

Anonymity, Whitmore said, is not needed because the sheriff has instructed all his rank-and-file that they can take grievances to anyone in the chain of command without fear of retribution.

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But a recent report by the department’s watchdog found that a code of silence exists among guards that hinders investigations into abuse complaints. In one case, a deputy who reported a colleague pushing an inmate into a window began receiving threatening phone calls describing him as a “rat” and telling him to watch his back.

At the commission’s last meeting, one of the panel’s other members also appeared to signal an openness to protecting the identities of witnesses.

“I think you’re going to get a lot more candid testimony if you interview them in a setting that is not necessarily open,” said former federal judge Robert Bonner, according to a report by KPCC-FM (89.3). “They should have some assurance of confidentiality.”

Bonner declined to comment when reached by The Times. The other members of the commission, created by the Board of Supervisors, declined to comment on the subject.

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In 2000, during the LAPD’s Rampart corruption scandal, a similar offer was presented by then-L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti to officers who witnessed colleagues commit crimes or misconduct but failed to report the activity to superiors. Although Garcetti did not promise confidentiality to officers who themselves participated in crimes, his offer was blasted by LAPD officials who said it would interfere with internal investigations.

Floyd Hayhurst, president of the union for rank-and-file sheriff’s deputies, said he opposes anonymous testimony, warning that adopting the practice could turn the commission’s work into a “witch hunt.”

“What happens if secret testimony is presented anonymously by jail staff to make false allegations against deputies and supervisors as a means of retribution?” he said in a statement. “Would the Commission then compel the targets of those allegations to appear before the Commission and ‘name names’ of other staff to also be implicated?”

robert.faturechi@latimes.com


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