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Woman who died in LAPD jail cell was properly checked on, chief says

An initial investigation into the death of a woman found unconscious in a Los Angeles jail showed that detention officers properly checked on her before she died, police officials said Tuesday.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told the Police Commission that officials had reviewed video footage from the jail as part of their investigation into Wakiesha Wilson’s death. Based on that video, he said, “it appears that the checks were made in compliance” with both state and LAPD regulations.

Coroner’s officials have classified Wilson’s March 27 death as a suicide, saying she hanged herself at the downtown Metropolitan Detention Center.

Beck declined to say more about the case, citing the ongoing investigation, but added that investigators were not aware of any altercation between Wilson and jail personnel. Wilson’s family and other activists have questioned the LAPD’s account and expressed doubts that Wilson would have taken her own life.

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The LAPD has recently drawn criticism over the death of Wilson, whose family learned about her passing only after she didn’t appear in court days later. Department critics have packed the weekly Police Commission meetings, chanting Wilson’s name as they demanded more information about the events leading up to the 36-year-old’s death.

Beck’s remarks came during a lengthy discussion Tuesday about an investigation from Inspector General Alex Bustamante, made public last week, that found that 82% of 198 welfare checks of inmates conducted at the Metropolitan Detention Center were “out of compliance” with standards established by state regulations, LAPD policy or expectations from the department on how those checks are conducted.

In most of the flawed checks, Bustamante found, jailers entered the two-level cell blocks where inmates are housed but failed to inspect the entire area of each floor. In the remainder of the cases, he wrote, jailers did not enter the cell blocks at all and often miscounted the number of inmates inside.

Bustamante stressed that although his investigation revealed a “systemic issue about how these checks were being conducted,” there was nothing to suggest that inmates at the jail “were being mistreated in any way.”

Beck and other LAPD brass expressed their concerns over the findings. One commander called the results “unacceptable.” Beck called it “serious business.” Veteran detention officers lined the front rows of the commission’s meeting room.

LAPD officials said they began implementing changes in March, when they were first approached about the inspector general’s findings. Those changes include revamped training for jail personnel, a review of the LAPD’s jail manual, random spot checks in all jails for compliance and upgraded technology to ensure more accurate record-keeping at the detention center, the busiest of the LAPD’s jails, they said.

LAPD officials stressed that even with the problematic checks, the department still met state standards, which require jailers to check cell blocks at least once an hour. The LAPD, however, has stricter standards, requiring jailers to check inmates and cells – whether empty or not – every half hour, when they are supposed to “look and listen for obvious signs of distress or trauma.”

Capt. Anthony Oddo told the Police Commission that the state told the LAPD in 2011 that detention officers would have to enter the cell blocks at the Metropolitan Detention Center to comply with state regulations. The department decided that jailers would enter the blocks at the top of every hour to follow the state rules, Oddo said, but not during the second half-hour check mandated by the LAPD’s jail manual. The LAPD jail manual was never changed to reflect the new practices signed off by command staff, Oddo said.

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More than half of the 198 safety checks reviewed by the inspector general’s office involved the so-called “bottom of the hour” checks with the loosened requirements, Oddo said.

The LAPD’s jails temporarily house people who have been arrested, usually before they have been charged or convicted of any crimes. The department’s facilities are separate from Los Angeles County jails, which are run by the Sheriff’s Department. The county jails are under federal court oversight after complaints that mentally ill inmates were mistreated and other inmates physically abused.

Police commissioners said that although they were concerned by the findings, they were satisfied with the initial steps taken by the LAPD.

“Everybody understands the importance of these checks and our obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of those in our custody,” Matt Johnson, the Police Commission president, said.

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kate.mather@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @katemather


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