Despite the assertion to the contrary by Sheriff John Scott, the sentencing Tuesday and likely imprisonment of six sworn Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, sergeants and lieutenants does not reflect merely the actions of a “few” bad actors. The punishments do not remove the isolated corrosive elements in an otherwise solid Sheriff’s Department, and they will not end the problems that some within the department and county government continue to insist occurred during a troubling but limited period of time.
The six were convicted of obstructing justice, an especially egregious offense by officers sworn to uphold the law, and their actions came in the form of a plot to shield the department from a federal investigation into the systematic and unwarranted abuse of jail inmates. The six may not have known at first, in the summer of 2011, that one of their corrupt colleagues had taken a bribe to smuggle a cellphone to an inmate; but they knew that the inmate had the phone and that he was using it to tell FBI agents about beatings and other deputy misconduct. They conspired to keep the inmate from communicating with federal authorities by moving him around the county’s vast jail system using false names. Two of the defendants even confronted an FBI agent outside her home and tried to intimidate her by claiming — falsely — that they were obtaining a warrant for her arrest.
Those defendants pursued a course of action that displayed a stunning arrogance. They earned their sentences; but as obstructors rather than defenders of justice, they were not self-taught. They operated within an ingrained culture of contempt, mismanagement, dishonesty and gratuitous violence. It is important to remember that they were trying to block a probe into the widespread use of excessive force, and that such force has been documented against visitors as well as inmates in Los Angeles County jails. It is important to keep in mind also that the department’s Antelope Valley stations were found to have engaged in patterns and practices of racially based discrimination and unconstitutional stops, searches, seizures and detentions. Settlement talks are ongoing in a lawsuit alleging that top sheriff’s officials condoned a pattern of violence against inmates. A court-appointed monitor is operating under a similar lawsuit alleging mistreatment of mentally ill inmates going back decades, and the U.S. Department of Justice advised the county earlier this year that it too would go to court over treatment of the mentally ill in the jails. Meanwhile, a Times investigation found fluctuating hiring standards that sometimes drop so low as to suggest the department will hire, at times, almost anyone.
It is tempting to believe that problems in the Sheriff’s Department began and ended with these six defendants — or with the deputy who took the bribe to smuggle the cellphone, or with those indicted on firearms or financial fraud charges, or with Paul Tanaka’s appointment as undersheriff in 2011, or Lee Baca’s election as sheriff in 1998 — but the facts belie such a belief. Problems in the department run deep, and the need for change will continue well after these six defendants are sent to prison.
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