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4:22 am
Thu December 12, 2013

Scandal May Bring New Oversight To LA County Sheriff's Department

Originally published on Thu December 12, 2013 8:41 am

Longtime civil rights attorney Connie Rice has been following this week's indictments against officers in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. She says it points to a subculture of corruption within certain units, much like the city's scandal-ridden police department of the 1990s.

In the main downtown jails, sheriff's officers are accused of beating and choking inmates without provocation, harassing visitors and then covering it all up.

"It's like entering the Bastille," says Rice. "It's ancient — you descend down into these concrete bunkers. It really does feel like it's apart from the world. ... It's overcrowded. Inmates have gotten more and more dangerous over the years, and the deputies developed a corresponding culture."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas says: "At this point in time the Sheriff's Department is essentially left to oversee itself, which is a recipe for disaster."

The elected sheriff operates with a lot of autonomy. Ridley-Thomas says the indictments against more than a dozen current and former sheriff's deputies and two lieutenants are tantamount to federal intervention, and that should have come much earlier.

He's calling for an independent commission of citizens — not law enforcement — much like what the LAPD got after years of scandal, brutality and widespread corruption in the 1990s. Ridley-Thomas says the commission would be tasked with overseeing LA's roughly 10,000 sheriff's officers inside and outside the jails. He plans to bring this to a vote next month.

Rice, who has spent years suing the LAPD and the sheriff's department, isn't sure whether the federal government would go so far as to fully take over the force, which is what it did with the LAPD in the 1990s.

"The black community was at war with LAPD [in the 90s]. And there was outright hatred between that community and the police department," says Rice. "I've never known the sheriffs to have outright hatred of an entire community."

The indictments stem from just one of four federal investigations into Sheriff Lee Baca's department, including one probing allegations that deputies on patrol used excessive force and racial profiling, and one looking at the treatment of mentally ill inmates in jails.

Baca says actions alleged in the indictment are the acts of a few rogue officers.

"The exceptions of force incidents ... 14 or 15 people under an indictment relative to jail activity is not an institutional number," Baca says. "There is no institutional problem within the sheriff's department when it comes to correcting itself."

Critics are quick to point out that the jails aren't Baca's only problem. The federal government is also investigating allegations of racial profiling and excessive force against black and Latino residents in communities north of Los Angeles. The sheriff has acknowledged past problems. And he points to changes he has made, including rehabilitation programs for inmates and the appointment of a new jail manager.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

More indictments are expected to come soon as part of a sweeping federal investigation into prisoner abuse and corruption inside the nation's largest jail system. This week, the U.S. attorney and the FBI laid charges against 18 current and former Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies. The LA County sheriff, Lee Baca, is pledging to cooperate with the ongoing investigation. What's not yet clear is if federal authorities will go as far as they did with the once scandal-ridden LA Police Department.

NPR's Kirk Siegler has more.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: This week's indictments are widely seen as damning, yet not unexpected. For Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, they're long overdue.

MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS: My question would be: What more do we need?

SIEGLER: Ridley-Thomas wants the county to create a permanent, independent commission with regulatory authority. It would be made up of people from outside law enforcement, and they'd oversee a department of just under 10,000 sworn deputies. Right now, the elected sheriff operates with a lot of autonomy.

RIDLEY-THOMAS: Well, at this point in time, the Sheriff's Department is essentially left to oversee itself, which is a recipe for disaster.

SIEGLER: Ridley-Thomas plans to bring his proposal to county supervisors for a vote next month. He says the county already has a template to turn to: the city of LA and its independent police commission. That commission formed following years of scandal involving police brutality and corruption inside the LAPD. There are some parallels starting to emerge between the Sheriff's Department and what happened in the LAPD in the 1990s.

The question now is: Will the federal government intervene as far as it did with the police - that is, fully take over the force. Longtime civil rights attorney Connie Rice isn't so sure.

CONNIE RICE: The sheriff, you never had entire communities at war with them. The black community was at war with LAPD. And there was outright hatred between that community and the police department. I've never known the sheriffs to have outright hatred of an entire community.

SIEGLER: In this week's indictments, sheriffs' officers are accused of beating and choking inmates without provocation, harassing visitors, and then covering it all up. For Rice, this does reveal, at the very least, a subculture of corruption within the main central jails.

RICE: It's like entering the Bastille. It's ancient. You descend down into these concrete bunkers. It really does feel like it's apart from the world. It's overcrowded. Inmates have gotten more and more dangerous over the years, and the deputies developed a corresponding culture.

SIEGLER: Sheriff Lee Baca rejects that portrayal. He says the actions alleged in the indictment are the acts of a few rogue officers.

SHERIFF LEE BACA: The exceptions of force incidents - and as you know, 14 or 15 people under an indictment, relative to jail activity, is not an institutional number.

SIEGLER: Critics of the sheriff are quick to point out the jails aren't his only problem. The federal government is also investigating allegations of racial profiling and excessive force against black and Latino residents in communities north of Los Angeles.

Now, all of this comes as the sheriff is running for a fifth term. Baca has acknowledged some past problems. And he points to reforms he's made, including rehabilitation programs for inmates, and the appointment of a new jail manager.

BACA: There is no institutional problem within the Sheriff's Department when it comes to correcting itself.

SIEGLER: Federal investigators may have the final say, though. Legal observers expect another round of indictments to be handed down, possibly in the next few weeks.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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