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L.A. County Approves Citizens Commission on Jail Reforms

The Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to establish a citizens commission to review the use of force in county jails and formally asked Sheriff Lee Baca to make changes in how the jails are run.
Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended forming a five-person commission, with each of the five supervisors nominating a candidate by Nov. 1, which the board approved on a 5-0 vote.

The commission will conduct a “review of the nature, depth and cause of the problem of inappropriate deputy use of force in the jails, and recommend corrective action as necessary.”

Supervisor Gloria Molina suggested going a step further, asking to immediately implement recommendations made by the county’s Special Counsel Merrick Bobb and the Office of Independent Review, and the board unanimously agreed.

The moves come on the heels of an Oct. 3 report by the American Civil Liberties Union on the pervasive use of violence, intimidation and excessive force by deputies in the county jail system, supported in part by eyewitness reports from private citizens volunteering in the jails, including a chaplain.

The FBI is also investigating alleged abuses and corruption in the jail system.

Some of the recommendations made by Bobb and the OIR include:
— installing surveillance cameras in the jails within 30 days;
— eliminating the use of heavy flashlights as batons to subdue inmates, substituting batons, if necessary;
— forbidding all head strikes, unless the standard for lethal force has been met;
— rotating deputies between floors at least every six months;
— enforcing an existing anti-retaliation policy against inmates who speak to lawyers or activists about jail conditions;
— ensuring that the most severe use of force investigations are completed within 30 days and that all are completed within 60 to 90 days;
— developing a plan for more intense supervision;
— mandating that medical personnel report all suspicious inmate injuries to the Internal Affairs Unit or the jail captain; and

Molina also asked the county’s chief executive officer look at the costs and feasibility of having deputies wear individual video cameras.

She said the county has paid more than $12.4 million in liability and legal costs to resolve claims of excessive force and failure to protect jail inmates in the past three years.

Sheriff Lee Baca is expected to come before the Board of Supervisors to discuss possible fixes within the next two weeks.

By law, Baca, an elected official, is ultimately in charge of the jail system. The Board of Supervisors is limited in its authority to tell him what to do.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California, said a consent decree might be needed to force the sheriff’s hand, calling county jails “totally dysfunctional.” A lawsuit can be settled by a judgment called a consent decree, sometimes used by the federal government to enforce changes by state or local governments.

“One way that we can guarantee … that the recommendations be accepted is that they be adopted through a consent decree,” Eliasberg said.

“Many of these reforms were first proposed … over a year ago — yet they still haven’t been implemented,” Molina said. “The very credibility of the Sheriff’s Department is at stake. Its integrity can be restored only if Sheriff Baca and his team wholeheartedly accept reform.”

Sheriff Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said Tuesday that Baca was open to the reforms suggested by the board. “Anything to improve the custody environment,” Nishida said.

She said the department was already in the process of installing 69 surveillance cameras at the Men’s Central Jail downtown.

Eliasberg urged the board to appoint commissioners with substantial corrections experience, including those who have worked to turn around failed jail systems.

In a phone call following the board meeting, he said the board’s proposals were all good, “but the reality is that there’s a rotten culture” in the jail system where deputies “feel confident that they won’t be caught.”

The code of silence that protects deputies that mistreat prisoners has to be addressed, Eliasberg said.