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A brutal picture of Baca's problems

It has the hallmarks of a police brutality claim: Allegations of violence and excessive force, blamed on poor training and discipline.

But this lawsuit was filed by deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department against deputies who, with them, worked at the Men's Central Jail, the nation's largest jail facility.

The lawsuit, chronicled in The Times last week, accuses the Sheriff's Department of allowing deputies in the jailhouse ranks to behave like the gang-bangers they guard.

It grew out of an altercation last year at a Montebello banquet hall, where a Christmas party for jail employees led to trash-talking and gang-like hand signs, and ended with one group of deputies allegedly attacking a pair who worked another floor. "A beat-down," the duo's lawyer called it.

It sounds like they're not much different from the gang-bangers behind bars.

This isn't the first time deputies have been accused of acting like gangsters. Tattooed, gang-like cliques have been a part of the department for more than 40 years. Their names reflected their rogue culture: the Regulators, the Grim Reapers, the Little Devils and the Vikings, whose antics cost the county more than $9 million in lawsuit claims.

And I'm not surprised that the crews flourish in the toxic environment of a county lockup staffed largely with rookies. Turnkey duty is the first assignment for every graduate of the sheriff's training academy.

The practice has been the subject of debate for years.

Supporters say it teaches new deputies to deal with volatile situations without relying on weapons because jail guards don't carry guns. They don't like to admit that it's mostly because custody jobs aren't on most deputies' wish lists, so staffing jails falls to those with the lowest seniority.

I think it's a bad idea — I agree with the 1992 Kolts Commission Report that said spending more than two years "in the exclusive company of hardened criminals in a grim correctional facility will turn any young inexperienced man or woman into a cynical authoritarian ready to harass, intimidate, bully and physically punish any person who does not immediately follow orders and conform."

This assessment, an independent review of the operations of the Sheriff's Department, even has a chapter called Deputy Gangs.

Yet Sheriff Lee Baca cautions that we ought not make too much of this. It's a "disappointment," he said, but reflects a "locker room mentality," not a fundamental management failure.

"I don't think it's the environment of the jail that's a problem. It's a failure to follow the department's core values."

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Michael Gennaco has heard the pros and cons of the jail assignment debate. For 10 years, he's been head of the civilian watchdog agency overseeing the Sheriff's Department.

"It would be great to have a study to settle the issue. But all we've got is anecdotal evidence," he said.

The anecdote this time makes the practice and the department look bad. And it's taking a toll in some quarters on deputies' morale.

There's a photo from the party making the rounds of the department: Half a dozen deputies, standing by a tabletop bar, flashing smiles and three-fingered signs, signifying the jail's third floor, where they manage prison-bound convicts and gangsters.

"It touched a nerve in the department," Gennaco said of the photo. "You have folks dressed up for a Christmas party and flashing gang signs. It's incongruous. And it may just be juvenile. But the older hands in the department are really ticked that younger deputies would adopt a way of signaling that belongs to groups that are the scourge of the neighborhoods that they patrol."

The guys throwing signs in those photographs have never had to comfort a mother who lost a child to gang violence. Or persuade a frightened witness to talk despite the threat of retaliation.

Instead, thanks to a years-long hiring freeze, their time spent herding inmates has stretched from two years to four or five, Gennaco told me.

The county's boom and bust economy has kept deputies in place for too long and lowered the caliber of the group, he said. "When you have a goal of hiring 1,000 officers in one year, you may end up relaxing hiring standards," he said.

That happened to the department in 2007 and 2008. "You end up hiring some deputies you wouldn't ordinarily hire," Gennaco said. "Folks had been disqualified or not hired by the LAPD or other agencies got jobs in [the Sheriff's Department] because they just needed bodies."

Take that combination — substandard recruits stuck on long jail stints — and it's not so hard to understand deputies whose us-versus-them mentality leads them to think like gang members.

The conflict that night at the Christmas party was between two competing jail crews, Gennaco said. The deputies who work in the jail's visiting rooms were razzing third-floor deputies for being too slow bringing prisoners down to meet with waiting friends and family. The third-floor crew took offense and fists flew.

The department has moved to fire six deputies, all from the photographed third-floor group. Gennaco said the brawl is sparking changes long overdue.

A new captain is spending more time walking the floor "talking with inmates and deputies," Gennaco said. And deputies will now be required to rotate through jail assignments — visiting rooms, education programs, custody units.

Those changes may help break down the insular nature of deputy crews. But the department is facing a bigger challenge, one of leadership and action.

Baca can recite the department's core values by heart: respect, fairness, integrity and common sense — it's a wonderful ode.

"These young people come in wanting to do what's right," he said.

"The foolish things, the photos and things that characterize them as a gang are coming home to roost. My belief is they had been drinking way too much. I don't believe they constitute a gang. They were friends. There were more than 60 or 70 deputies at that party, and only six are acting foolish.…

"My question is, What message are we sending internally in the Sheriff's Department? Why are people not following these core values?"

That's a good question. And Gennaco isn't buying the "few bad apples" copout.

"When you have six bad apples, you have to look at the barrel," he said.

That's the answer to Baca's question.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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