Sheriffs Arrest Prompts New Call for Independent Oversight

By City News Service

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in remarks published Wednesday that the county must take a greater oversight role over the Sheriff’s Department following the indictment of 18 former and current deputies on charges of abusing inmates and jail visitors.

“Ultimately, the next step in this process of reform is oversight and this should not be taken lightly because of the need to make sure that we are building a culture where no one operates under the impression they are above the law,” he said in an interview reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Ridley-Thomas said the mechanism would be a blue-ribbon panel that he and Supervisor Gloria Molina proposed earlier this year but that has stalled for the lack of a third vote on the five-member Board of Supervisors. They will revisit the proposal in January.

Ridley-Thomas acknowledged that Sheriff Lee Baca, an elected official, would have to consent to increased oversight but argued that it is in Baca’s “best interest” given the emerging controversy.

He said he would model such an effort after the commission that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department, which was rocked by major misconduct convictions in an anti-gang unit during the so-called Rampart scandal in the 1990s.

“There is a model that has made that Police Department better. It would seem to some that the county of Los Angeles would be anxious to do something similar if not better, particularly in light of today’s revelations,” Ridley-Thomas said, according to The Times.

“This is a cultural problem, fundamentally so, and this is tantamount in some ways to the stench of Rampart, without the same levels of brutality in this particular instance,” the supervisor said. “But the corruption that it speaks to is most unsettling.”

Baca, who faces reelection next year, has been criticized for what some have called a lack of attention to the day to day issues facing his department, leaving other high ranking officials to handle operations, including in the county jail system.

Molina has publicly called for a serious challenger to take on Baca in the 2014 election, saying he has failed to demonstrate the leadership in handling the department’s ongoing problems.

A federal investigation into alleged abuses inside L.A. County jails came to a head Monday with the unsealing of indictments and charges against 18 current and former Sheriff’s Department officials accused of crimes such as corruption, obstruction of justice and abuse of inmates and jail visitors.

The defendants, 16 of whom were arrested Monday, were named in four grand jury indictments and one criminal complaint.

“The five cases allege a wide scope of illegal conduct,” said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte. “The investigation started by focusing on misconduct in county jails, and we uncovered examples of civil rights violations that included excessive force and unlawful arrests.”

Birotte said the defendants believed they were “above the law,” opting against cooperating with a federal investigation aimed at rooting out misconduct by deputies in the jails.

“These incidents did not take place in a vacuum,” Birotte said. “In fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized. … Some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law.”

Sheriff Lee Baca said Monday his department cooperated with the FBI in the probe, adding that “while the indictments were not unexpected, it is nonetheless a sad day for this department.”

One indictment accuses a former sergeant and five deputies of arresting or detaining five people — including the Austrian consul general and her husband — when they tried to visit inmates at the Men’s Central Jail.

Birotte said that in one case, a victim was “thrown into a refrigerator in an employee break room” and kept there for five days without being charged. He said another victim suffered a broken arm and dislocated shoulder and was left permanently disabled.

The Austrian consul general and her husband, meanwhile, were handcuffed and detained at the jail, Birotte said. The consul was arrested even though she enjoyed diplomatic immunity from prosecution.

The issue of deputies’ conduct in the jails has been a hot topic for the past two years. Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman to a new position of inspector general, charged with scrutinizing the 10,000-member Sheriff’s Department and authorized to conduct investigations inside troubled jails and elsewhere.

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December 12, 2013  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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