A commission investigating allegations of deputy brutality inside Los Angeles County jails cannot guarantee confidentiality for deputies who want to testify, dealing a blow to efforts to combat what has been described as a code of silence among some jail guards.
Members of the special commission created by the county Board of Supervisors had raised the possibility of allowing deputies and others to provide anonymous testimony as they attempt to determine the scope of any brutality against inmates.
But Richard E. Drooyan, the panel’s general counsel, has told commissioners that a court could compel them to provide the identities during a criminal investigation or civil litigation. Allegations of excessive force against inmates is the subject of an FBI probe as well as civil lawsuits, including one filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
In an interview with The Times on Saturday, Drooyan said he hoped former deputies and current guards would be willing to come forward despite the limits on confidentiality.
“There is at least some chance that we’ll be able to preserve confidentiality, but it’s not something we can guarantee,” he said.
Drooyan told commissioners at their regular meeting Friday that investigators could tell concerned witnesses that their names would not appear in the panel’s final report and that the commission would do everything it legally could to protect their identities.
Some on the seven-member commission had signaled an openness to offering confidentiality for some witnesses. An October report by the Sheriff’s Department’s watchdog found that a code of silence exists among guards that hinders investigations into abuse complaints.
But the idea of confidential testimony drew opposition from Sheriff Lee Baca and the largest union of rank-and-file L.A. County deputy sheriffs, whose president warned that such a practice could turn the commission into a “witch hunt.”
Drooyan told commissioners he believed they lack the authority to issue subpoenas to compel people to testify, prompting concern among some members of the panel.
“How effective is this commission going to be with regard to its investigatory powers?” asked Commissioner Dickran Tevrizian, a retired federal judge.
Drooyan said the panel would focus on broad systemic issues in the jail rather than alleged criminal conduct by deputies. He was confident, he said, that there would be no shortage of witnesses willing to speak out. Baca has told the commission his department will cooperate with its investigation.
Drooyan outlined an ambitious proposal for the probe in which the commission would probably begin its investigation next month and issue a public report in August. The investigation would be spearheaded by 15 volunteer attorneys under Drooyan’s leadership.
Drooyan told The Times that the panel’s investigation is loosely modeled on that of the landmark Christopher Commission, which recommended sweeping reforms of the L.A. Police Department after the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King. Drooyan, a former federal prosecutor, worked as a deputy general counsel on the commission and, nearly a decade later, led a panel set up by the Los Angeles Police Commission to investigate the Rampart corruption scandal. He currently serves as the police commission’s president.
The county’s commission on jail violence will seek to review deputies’ disciplinary files as part of its investigation, Drooyan said.
“Obviously, personnel and disciplinary records are very sensitive and confidential,” he said. “It’s certainly something we’re going to ask for.”
Among the areas he has proposed the commission should examine are the culture of the jails, including whether deputies have formed gangs in the jails; the use of force by deputies and the Sheriff’s Department’s training and policies on force; the department’s hiring standards and the rotation of deputy assignments in the jails; the department’s investigations of misconduct and whether wrongdoing results in appropriate discipline; and what the department’s upper managers knew about jail violence and how they responded.