Any lingering doubt about whether there are deep-seated problems of abuse at Los Angeles County jails should be put to rest by Monday's arrests following the unsealing of formal charges against 18 current or former sheriff's deputies. Any inclination to pass off more than two years of news reports and official probes detailing inmate beatings as simply the result of a few rogue deputies should be shelved.
Some of the allegations are familiar, involving inmates suffering unwarranted abuse and beatings. One of the challenges in coming to grips with civil rights violations perpetrated against convicted criminals is that the victims receive little sympathy from most of the voters and taxpayers who put the sheriff in office and who pay his department's bills; after all, the thinking goes, criminals deserve punishment.
They do not, however, deserve to be beaten. A civilized society is entitled to punish lawbreakers, but officials with badges, guns and the authority to ensure safety and order are not vested with the right to abuse those they guard. Nor are all inmates criminals; many are in jail awaiting trial, presumed innocent until the jury verdict.
Monday's charges went beyond the beating of inmates. Even visitors to the jails, uncharged and unsuspected of any crime, were abused in the county jails, according to the indictments. It is stunning that the Austrian consul, visiting an Austrian national who had been accused of a crime, was allegedly unlawfully arrested and searched in the jail. So, allegedly, was his wife.
The U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Andre Birotte Jr., made it clear that investigations are continuing. And he made it clear as well that he did not see the arrests as resulting merely from a few cases of excessive force or improper arrest. The problem, he asserted, is "institutionalized."
That word is a reminder of the problems at the Los Angeles Police Department that led to a consent decree and federal court oversight: a police culture that countenanced civil rights abuses and engendered an us-against-the-world attitude. It was a culture that had to be broken before the department could be put back together.
Individual sheriff's deputies, just like others accused of crimes, must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, but the indictments unsealed Monday cap an extended period of reports about misconduct in the Sheriff's Department.