Dysfunction at L.A.’s jails

Cells within the Men's Central jail in Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

It’s no secret that the Los Angeles County jails are a mess. The FBI is looking into excessive use of force by sheriff’s deputies. Internal affairs is investigating allegations that deputies formed a gang-like clique whose members wore skeleton tattoos. Testimony before the county’s new jails commission has painted a picture of a dysfunctional department and a seemingly out of touch Sheriff Lee Baca.

Now it is becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t just a story of sporadic cruelty and violence but of a department that is institutionally unable — or worse, unwilling — to track and discipline those who engage in such misconduct.

Last week, Capt. Michael Bornman testified that shortly after he was assigned to the jails in 2009, he discovered stacks of incomplete use-of-force reports along with a huge backlog of administrative investigations into deputy misconduct. In some cases, those reports had languished for at least three years, often incomplete or missing key pages, making it nearly impossible to discipline deputies. Information that is supposed to be used to identify and track problem deputies was either never entered into the Personnel Performance Index or only incomplete records were logged.


SERIES: Times investigation into L.A. County jails

It’s not clear why the records went missing. But Bornman and another high-ranking official testified that supervisors in the jails were encouraged not to take allegations of misconduct too seriously. In one instance, the captain in charge of Men’s Central Jail joked with deputies about hitting inmates but avoiding their faces, according to Bornman. In another case, the department’s second in command, Paul Tanaka, allegedly encouraged supervisors to allow deputies to work “in the gray area,” according to Capt. Patrick Maxwell. It’s not completely clear what that means, but it seems to suggest that they might be permitted to break the law or the rules while doing their jobs.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the department, alleging that it routinely fails to provide information on deputy misconduct and prior uses of force to inmates who request it. Such information can be vital to inmates challenging the credibility of a deputy.Baca says these are old problems and that they have been corrected. But there are lots of indications that even after 2009, the use of force continued, just business as usual. We’d like to see some evidence that Tanaka and the supervisors are cracking down on those deputies who fail to play by the rules.