Los Angeles County jailers are more likely to use force against mentally ill inmates than other prisoners, according to a new Sheriff's Department report that acknowledges the lockups need specially trained staff to reduce the violence.
Roughly a third of the 582 deputy use-of-force cases in the jail system last year involved inmates with mental health histories, according to an analysis released Tuesday. About 15% of the jail's 15,000 inmates are classified as mentally ill.
The numbers provide a more detailed picture of the confrontations between deputies and inmates, an issue that has sparked intense scrutiny over the last few months and prompted a heated debate Tuesday between Sheriff Lee Baca and some L.A. County supervisors.
Baca presented the report to county supervisors in response to their concerns about conditions in the jails, which are the subject of an FBI investigation. Federal authorities are investigating several specific allegations of deputy misconduct and excessive force and last year even smuggled a cellphone into the jail as part of the probe.
But the disproportionate number of mentally ill inmates involved in altercations with deputies is a new element in the jail controversy. The Times reported in October that a Los Angeles County sheriff's rookie resigned after only a few weeks on the job, alleging that a supervisor made him beat up a mentally ill inmate.
Baca said he had added more deputies who are trained in resolving tensions with mentally ill inmates without resorting to violence and announced that he wanted to increase the number of mental health staff members.
The problems were particularly acute at night and early in the morning when specially trained staff were not at work, sheriff's officials said in a report to the Board of Supervisors. The confrontations often involve inmates who become disruptive when jailers move them out of housing areas set aside for the mentally ill and into general population rows inside Men's Central Jail, Baca said.
"I don't want to have to use force to get them back to housing. I think that's inappropriate," Baca told the Board of Supervisors during a contentious meeting.
David Bennett, a criminal justice consultant who has been hired by jails across the country, said mentally ill inmates pose unique problems for jail managers. Many don't belong in jail, he said, but wind up incarcerated as a result of behavior linked to their illnesses. Once in jail, mentally ill inmates are more prone to act out in a way that could lead jailers to use force, he said.
"We need to make sure that staff is trained to handle these inmates in a way that minimizes the use of force," Bennett said.
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, accused the department of failing to provide sufficient training to deputies throughout the jails on how to deal with the mentally ill. Deputies without such an education can easily mistake erratic behavior for signs of aggression, he said.
"You have to be on guard that some of them behave differently and they often do things that if they didn't have mental illness, it would be a real true sign of aggression," he said. "But if you're sensitive that this is an inmate with mental illness, you realize it's not a deliberate attempt to incite."
Eliasberg said the department also has vastly underestimated the percentage of its jail population that suffers from mental illness.
The sheriff told openly skeptical supervisors that he needed more money to prevent force against mentally ill inmates as his department deals with allegations of deputy brutality. The funds would help pay for six deputies trained to deal with mentally ill inmates during the evenings and additional clinicians from the county's Department of Mental Health.
Supervisor Gloria Molina accused Baca of failing to adequately explain a number of jail issues, including why mentally ill inmates who act disruptively would be housed with the general jail population. She described the sheriff's report as "garbage" and "gobbledygook."
"I don't think you're taking us very seriously," she said.
"On the contrary, supervisor. I don't think you're taking what we're saying very seriously," Baca shot back during one testy exchange.
Baca cited a significant drop in force incidents over the last year as evidence that the department is making headway.
The most noteworthy decline has come in the last three months, coinciding with intense public scrutiny of how the sheriff manages the nation's largest jail system. From October through December, sheriff's figures show, jailers used force 107 times, compared with 155 times the previous three months.
Baca told The Times that media scrutiny and complaints made by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California had spurred valuable reforms and raised questions about when force should be used on inmates.
"It is more clear to deputies after recent events … you've really got to be on solid footing when you engage in force," Baca said, "and not just do it because someone's giving you a hard time."
Meanwhile Tuesday, sheriff's officials confirmed that jails Chief Dennis Burns would be retiring from his post.
Capt. Mike Parker said the decision by Burns, a 38-year veteran, had nothing to do with recent allegations of misconduct inside the jails. Alarms were raised about abuse in the jails during Burns' watch, with internal audits discovering excessive force and shoddy investigations.
One retired sheriff's commander told The Times recently that he expressed concerns about jailer behavior to Burns but was told the jail's culture could not be changed. Burns denied making the comment.
Also on Tuesday, a lawyer for several sheriff's deputies held a news conference alleging that his clients had witnessed other deputies planting evidence and falsifying reports.
Attorney Leo Terrell said his clients had made the allegations in sworn depositions, but he did not make those statements available. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department hopes to interview the deputies and investigate the allegations.