LOS ANGELES (AP) — A scathing report Friday depicted a rogue culture inside the nation's largest county jail system in which deputies abused and humiliated inmates while top management failed to recognize problems or weed out violent officers.
The preliminary findings by investigators for a Los Angeles County commission said a "force first" approach was employed in jails to establish authority over inmates, rather than as a last resort. The investigators concluded that a "code of silence" blocked the county Sheriff's Department, which oversees the jails, from detecting or preventing excessive force used against inmates.
The report said deputies have used force against inmates even "when there was no threat at all," and referred to "a culture of aggression among some deputies in the jails."
It also provided a sharply critical critique of Sheriff Lee Baca, describing him as aloof from the trouble festering in his senior ranks, and faulting him for failing to monitor and control how force is used in the jails.
The sheriff's spokesman, Steve Whitmore, said Baca disagreed with many of the panel's findings, and the department would soon issue a report of its separate investigation of the jails. He disputed the suggestion Baca was a detached manager who failed to recognize trouble in the system.
"Are there challenges in our jails? Absolutely. Has he acknowledged that? Yes," Whitmore said. He added that "people are going to be somewhat surprised" by the findings in the review ordered by Baca, but didn't elaborate.
The report issued by attorney investigators for the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence comes as the latest development following allegations of beatings and abuse in the jails. The county's Board of Supervisors created the commission to review deputies' use of force in the jails and to recommend remedies, if needed.
At the core of the problems facing the department is how its deputies treat some of the estimated 15,000 inmates in county jails. The American Civil Liberties Union, a constant critic of the sheriff, has filed a lawsuit accusing Baca and other department officials of condoning violence against inmates.
Among its findings, the investigators said discipline was discouraged against deputies, and there was little training or guidance in instances when force should be used. It said senior managers failed to investigate beatings, and despite a wide array of computer systems, entities with oversight of the jails failed to regularly review data for trends in violent behavior.
The report cited witnesses who told the commission that deputies enabled inmates to attack rivals by opening the doors to several cells at once, and it faulted one top manager for urging deputies to be aggressive and "work in the gray area."
"Management has tolerated the excessive use of force in the jails," the report said. "Deputies often exhibited a lack of respect toward inmates, through their words and actions. This lack of respect contributed to the excessive use of force."
The ACLU released a report last year that documented more than 70 cases of alleged abuse and other misconduct by deputies, many of which occurred at one of the county's oldest and largest jails, the Men's Central Jail. The FBI has launched its own investigation and asked for internal department records dealing with inmate abuse.