The 18 acting and former deputy sheriffs charged with federal crimes in connection with the running of the Los Angeles County jails have yet to stand trial. But whether or not they are convicted, the arrests make one thing perfectly clear:
As presently structured, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department jail division is a failed institution.
It’s time to replace it with an institution that can at least be counted on to protect visitors and inmates from attacks by those responsible for guarding them.
Sheriff Lee Baca’s announcement Tuesday that he won’t seek another term is one step in the right direction. He has long demonstrated a near-complete inability even to slow the perceived rising violence and thuggery of many of the deputies assigned to custody duty. And he has seemed immune to shame, blaming problems in the department on a few “bad apples” every time problems came to light during his tenure.
ACLU head Hector Villagra sees it differently. “The entire tree may be rotten,” he said. And if that’s the case, simply replacing the man at the top won’t get rid of the rotten wood.
The place to start with reforms is the jails, since they are at the heart of the entire department’s culture. A deputy’s first assignment out of the academy is usually to guard duty at the jails, and it can take years to get off that assignment and onto the streets. It is highly questionable, though, whether regulating convicted criminals in confinement is a suitable task for those trained to catch bad guys.
The late Sheriff Sherman Block, who held the job immediately before Baca, once told me he considered bossing around jail inmates to be the best possible training a deputy could have for dealing with the general public. But can that philosophy fit with the modern doctrine of community policing?
The federal allegations raise a serious question. What kind of values are being instilled in the young men and women of the Sheriff’s Department by working in a culture that allegedly condones violence by uniformed deputies and cover-ups from above?
This latest mess demands the reinvention of a system that just doesn’t work. The county needs a new agency that would put a wall between what should be two separate functions of law enforcement: policing and custody. A Los Angeles County Department of Corrections should take over the running of the jails under a corrections chief appointed by the Board of Supervisors. And the sheriff should stick to enforcing laws and apprehending criminals.
Some would argue that the whole idea of electing a sheriff should be scrapped. Other large counties in other states (for instance, New York’s Nassau and Suffolk counties and Florida’s Miami-Dade County) long ago replaced the office of sheriff — a literally medieval title originating before the Norman Conquest — with modern county police forces and separate corrections agencies.
But in California, Article 11 of the Constitution mandates that counties have “an elected sheriff.” It would take a constitutional amendment to change that. The Constitution does not, however, require that the sheriff run the jails.
Accordingly, at least three of California’s 58 counties have, for various reasons, established civilian corrections departments to run their jails. The oldest is Napa County’s, established in 1975. The biggest county to establish a corrections department is Santa Clara, with a population of 1.8 million, which separated the two functions in 1987. Santa Clara’s civilian jail agency originated with a ballot initiative pushed by then-county Supervisor (now U.S. Rep.) Zoe Lofgren, and it was billed primarily as a cost-cutting measure.
The move reportedly failed to save money, and the county eventually returned most, but not all, of the correction department’s responsibilities to the sheriff, saying it was more efficient in a time of limited resources and likely to reduce duplicative bureaucracy. In 2012, voters approved a measure that allowed county supervisors to apportion responsibility as it sees fit.
Government code currently mandates that, except in counties like Santa Clara, Madera and Napa that had civilian corrections departments before July 1993, “the sheriff shall be the sole and exclusive authority to keep the county jail.” But the statute could be changed by a vote of the Legislature. The arrest of 18 deputies in Los Angeles, some of whom were led off in chains, makes clear that it should be.
Los Angeles County must be free to consider the obvious remedy to its long-troubled jail administration.
Marc B. Haefele covered the County of Los Angeles for the Metropolitan News Enterprise and the LA Weekly. He has reported on Argentina for the Boston Review, the Jewish Journal and the Argentine magazine Nomada and is a commentator on KPCC-FM (89.3).