Los Angeles County's longtime sheriff is facing one of the toughest attacks of his 13-year term, after a civil rights group demanded his resignation and claimed he looked the other way while his sprawling jail network became co-opted by violent and corrupt deputies who routinely abuse inmates.
Sheriff Lee Baca, whose deputies oversee about 15,000 inmates in the nation's busiest jail system, said he welcomed the criticism but disputed the claims made Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. He said he had no intention of stepping down.
The ACLU demanded the four-term sheriff's resignation, saying he and his top commanders are willfully indifferent to claims made by inmates and civilian jail visitors that deputies routinely viciously assault inmates.
In one case, an inmate at the downtown Men's Central Jail said deputies accused him of stealing mail then punched him, breaking an eye socket, and marched him naked to a cell occupied by two gang members.
Deputies repeatedly ignored the man's cries for help as the gang members raped him while another inmate flushed his head down a toilet to muffle his screams, the man, who had been jailed for making criminal threats, said in a sworn declaration.
It is "a jail system and a sheriff's department running a jail system through corruption, through intimidation, through unchecked violence and negligent, perhaps even nonexistent, supervision and management," said Tom Parker, a former FBI special agent in charge who conducted an investigation of the jails for the ACLU. "I have never seen anything that approaches the patterns of violence, misfeasance and malfeasance that particularly infects the Los Angeles County jail system."
Such intense criticism is unusual for Baca, a mild-mannered lawman who publicly espouses compassionate treatment of criminals and educational opportunities for inmates. The 69-year-old ran unopposed in last year's election but has been criticized over allegations he granted special favors for political donors.
Baca called the ACLU's statements "hyperbole" designed at winning a quick headline. He said his department takes seriously all allegations of deputy misconduct and noted that deputies who had been shown to use excessive force were frequently dismissed.
"It's easy to accuse deputies of being brutal, it's easy to make mass comments about how everything is running rampant in the jail system," Baca said. "When (inmates) do get violent with my staff or they get violent with each other, who is responsible for ending the violence?"
The ACLU, a court-appointed monitor of jail conditions, called for Baca's resignation while releasing a 22-page report that referenced 70 sworn statements, including affidavits by two chaplains and a Hollywood producer who volunteer at the Men's Central Jail.
The ACLU said it received thousands of brutality complaints in the past year.
"Hangover" producer Scott Budnick, a former jail writing tutor, chaplain Paulino Juarez and another chaplain who submitted a statement anonymously said in the ACLU report that deputies brutalize inmates, and sheriff's supervisors don't take beating reports seriously.
Juarez said he was ministering to a Men's Central Jail inmate on Feb. 11, 2009, when he saw three deputies beating an apparently handcuffed inmate who was pleading for them to stop.
The name of the man who said in the report that he was raped was withheld because The Associated Press does not typically name alleged victims of sex crimes.
The FBI has been investigating deputy conduct at county jails, partly in response to claims put forward by the ACLU.
On Tuesday, Baca met with U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte to discuss an FBI undercover sting in which a deputy allegedly accepted a $1,500 bribe to get a cell phone to an inmate who was an FBI informant.
Baca told the Los Angeles Times that the inmate was using pay phones inside the Men's Central Jail to contact FBI agents investigating allegations of deputy misconduct. He said the agents tried to dissuade their informant from using a jailhouse line out of fear that his calls could be monitored by sheriff's officials.
Baca said that when the agents promised to get their informant a cellphone, the inmate said he knew of a deputy willing to smuggle contraband for cash.
When sheriff's officials later searched the inmate and found the phone, they also found a hand-written note listing names of deputies. Baca said the informant had been gathering the names of deputies thought to have used excessive force against inmates for the FBI.
The deputy who allegedly smuggled the phone has resigned.
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