CITY NEWS SERVICE
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, responding Tuesday to critics who have accused him of turning a blind eye on jailhouse beatings, said he planned to hire an assistant sheriff to run the county’s jail system by Jan. 1 as part of a broader plan for reform.
Of 63 recommendations made by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence last month, Baca told the Board of Supervisors that “20 have been implemented, 31 are in process and 12 … need funding.”
Key recommendations by the commission include staffing a separate custody division with specially-trained deputies and hiring an inspector general to oversee county jails.
Baca said he would support an inspector general, adding that he proposed a similar concept in 1999. He was ready to start a national search to find a non-sworn assistant sheriff to lead the custody division.
The sheriff said he also planned to have a dual career track for patrol and custody deputies in place by Jan. 1. Deputies fresh out of the training academy are assigned to jail duty before rotating out to patrol, generally a more desirable position.
Deputies working as jailers would no longer be required to move on to patrol duty and could be promoted as high as deputy chief without ever working a patrol beat.
The sheriff submitted a 17-page outline of how he plans to implement each of the commission’s recommendations, but the supervisors — who had just received the document the night before — said they needed more details and pushed for quick action.
“We have major lawsuits that are pending,” Supervisor Gloria Molina said, citing a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union and predicting that the county would soon be paying out millions of dollars to settle suits by individual inmates. The specter of a consent decree from the Department of Justice was also on Molina’s mind.
“We want to move quickly, forcibly and effectively to implement reforms” to offer a clear signal to DOJ investigators, she said.
The Citizens’ Commission’s 200-page report amounted to a rebuke of Baca and his brass, saying the sheriff failed to pay attention to violence in county jails until “adverse publicity” forced him to take action, while others working for him encouraged aggressive tactics and a “deputy-versus-inmate culture” that incited assaults.
While agreeing to adopt all of the recommendations, Baca did push back a bit, saying that the commission didn’t fully appreciate how the county’s jail system — the nation’s largest — differs from state prisons or jails run by the Los Angeles Police Department.
“LAPD does not run a 20,000-person jail,” Baca said, adding that county jailers don’t carry guns or long batons like LAPD officers. And unlike state prisons, there is a lot of mobility in and out of the system. “There are 500 going to court, 500 being released, every day,” Baca said. “There are 140,000 inmates coming through in one year, unlike prison systems.”
And a discussion with Supervisor Michael Antonovich about who manages the jail system while the sheriff is traveling highlighted Baca’s commitment to maintaining control.
“So nobody’s in charge while you’re away?” Antonovich asked.
“I’m in charge,” Baca said more than once, adding that he could stay in touch via teleconference or other technology if needed.
Baca has restructured the department’s chain of command so that two internal investigative bureaus report directly to him, rather than to Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, whom the commission found encouraged deputies to be aggressive with inmates and undercut the department’s disciplinary process. But Baca’s cover letter to the board made clear that there are limits to the changes he is willing to make.
“I will not unfairly blame or discipline any member of this department based on personal or political motivations, or where there is no factual evidence of misconduct,” Baca wrote. “I am committed to following recommendations where it will serve to improve our performance as an organization.”
The sheriff said he had initiated administrative investigations to see whether discipline of senior managers is warranted, but did not specifically say whether Tanaka was the subject of such an investigation.
After quizzing him on specifics, the board asked Baca to come back with additional details and to work with Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka in coordination with members of the Citizens’ Commission to move reforms forward.
“It’s one thing to stand up and say, ‘I agree with all the recommendations,’” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. “But the devil’s in the details.”
The board agreed to hold monthly public hearings to track the implementation of reforms and said it would begin a search for an independent inspector general.