Federal authorities have opened a civil rights probe into whether Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies have engaged in a pattern of abuse of inmates, according to a letter sent to county officials this week.
Department of Justice officials made it clear that the “pattern or practice” investigation would be “conducted entirely separately” from the FBI’s ongoing criminal investigation into allegations of excessive force and other misconduct inside the nation’s largest jail system.
The letter, dated Sept. 5, said federal authorities had “become increasingly concerned about use of force and alleged abuse by jail deputies and staff.”
The investigation will also examine whether the Sheriff’s department has failed to adequately house and care for mentally ill inmates -- a problem federal authorities first identified in 1997.
“A growing number of prisoners with serious mental illness continue to be housed in obsolete and dilapidated conditions at Men’s Central Jail,” the letter stated.
Sheriff Lee Baca’s jails have been under intense scrutiny. The FBI’s criminal probe of jailhouse misconduct has been ongoing since at least 2011 and is expected to be wrapped up by the end of the year. Federal authorities have interviewed Baca, his top aides, inmates and lower-level jailers, and have subpoenaed extensive internal records.
Internal sheriff’s memos showed that top supervisors raised alarms about excessive force and deputies inflicting “jailhouse justice” on inmates. Sheriff’s officials have come forward with tales of beatings. And last year, a blue-ribbon county commission concluded that Baca and his top assistants had fostered a culture in which deputies were permitted to beat and humiliate inmates, cover up misconduct and form aggressive deputy cliques.
Word of the new “pattern or practice” probe comes just two months after federal authorities wrapped up another civil rights investigation into the department -- finding that deputies in the Antelope Valley harassed and intimidated blacks, Latinos and other citizens.
In that probe, federal officials found a pattern of deputies using unreasonable force, intimidation and “widespread” unlawful detentions and searches. Many of the findings involved residents who received low-income subsidized housing.
Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department would fully cooperate with the new federal probe. He noted that the letter acknowledged that the department had made “critical improvements in the delivery of mental health care at the jail” during the last decade.
Whitmore said the department has also made significant reforms in an effort to deal with excessive force by jailers.
“We question the allegations of use of force,” he said. “It is being tracked now like it’s never been tracked before. Use of force is down by more than half.”