Memo to the boss — any boss: When a long-festering problem at last reaches critical mass and explodes in your face, you should arrange affairs in such a way that you are left with a plausible explanation other than your own corruption or your own incompetence.
Such is the choice left to Lee Baca, sheriff of Los Angeles County, who today faces calls for his resignation over an escalating scandal regarding allegations of brutality in the county jails. For well over a year, the Los Angeles Times has been reporting on incidents of abuse meted out by Sheriff’s Department deputies inside the jails, and now the FBI is conducting its own investigation.
In April 2010, for example, the Times reported that three deputies had been charged with assaulting a jail inmate in 2006, an incident that had already been investigated by the Sheriff’s Department. Internal affairs investigators determined that the inmates’ injuries “were either self-inflicted or caused by other inmates, according to court records,” reported the Times. The investigation was reopened when an involved deputy, during a job interview with another police department, admitted to lying about the incident. The three deputies later pleaded guilty and resigned from the department.
In February of this year, a civilian jail monitor from the ACLU claimed to have witnessed jail deputies beating an inmate “like a punching bag” as he lay motionless and perhaps even unconscious. The Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into the incident is ongoing, but the Times reported that the initial findings were that the inmate had been combative and that a deputy sustained minor injuries.
The incident highlights the difficulties inherent to investigations of deputy misconduct inside the jails. “Allegations of deputy brutality in county jails are common but hard to substantiate,” says the Times. “Aside from other deputies, usually the only witnesses are inmates, whose accounts are inherently considered less credible, experts say.”
Indeed, establishing the veracity of an inmate claiming abuse is tricky, to say the least. Inmates have various incentives to fabricate allegations against deputies, sometimes in the hope of a transfer to more desirable housing, sometimes in revenge for perceived mistreatment, and sometimes in an effort to miss the bus that will take them to their court appearances, the outcomes of which they would rather avoid.
But so too do deputies have incentive to deny or minimize their roles in incidents where improper force is alleged by inmates. Like any jail or prison, the L.A. County jails are ruled through intimidation and sometimes force. Thousands of inmates are minded by a relative handful of deputies, who depend on their charges being fearful of the consequences if they step out of line.
My own contact with the county jails has been limited to supplying occupants for a good many years, but on one occasion some time ago my duties took me deep within the walls of the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. I was there at the behest of detectives who instructed me to retrieve a particular inmate from the general population so that some additional bureaucratic procedures could be followed in the case against him. To do this, I went with a lone deputy into a large room where perhaps a hundred inmates were jammed cheek by jowl. We had to get to the opposite end of the room where another door would lead us to the inmate I sought. So there we were, outnumbered 50 to 1, wading through this sea of humanity which, had the notion seized them, could have beaten us both to mush in no time at all. I don’t mind saying I was a little frightened, but I followed my escort, a man of no imposing dimensions, as he pushed and pulled the inmates this way and that so as to clear a path for us. He was firm but professional, and yes, perhaps a bit rough with those few inmates who failed to clear the path as quickly as others had. This served as a lesson for me: that deputy was in control of that room and everyone in it for as long as he chose to be there.
That was a distillation of how the L.A. County jails, the nation’s largest jail system, are governed. But in such an environment physical conflict is inevitable. The deputies must control large numbers of individuals who have for one reason or another landed behind bars, thereby demonstrating to varying degrees they are incapable of controlling themselves. Inmates do indeed challenge and assault deputies, sometimes going to creative and downright vile lengths to torment their guards. Makeshift weapons are routinely discovered during searches.
And we are not merely talking about petty criminals here. Housed in the L.A. County jails are not only misdemeanants but also accused felons awaiting trial and convicted felons serving county jail time as a condition of probation. (There will soon be even more felons in the jails as a result of the need to lower the California prison population, as discussed here.)
But if violent encounters between inmates and deputies are inevitable, how should the Sheriff’s Department respond when they occur? Sheriff Baca has a duty to maintain his department’s moral credibility, both in the jails and on the streets where his deputies patrol. No sensible person would expect that deputies not mix it up with inmates from time to time, and even most inmates would agree that some of their number look for trouble in the jails and find it. But like that roomful of prisoners I found myself wading through years ago, most inmates expect the more obstreperous among them to be put in their place, through force if necessary. Good order in the jails benefits everyone, not just the guards.
But when it is reported that 69 cameras intended to monitor activity in the Men’s Central Jail, purchased more than a year ago, remain in their shipping boxes in the captain’s office, questions of accountability naturally arise. Sheriff Baca says the cameras will be installed before the end of the year. “I am the ultimate authority here,” he told the L.A. Times. “There’s no excuse for such a major project as this going undone.”
No, there isn’t.
Sheriff Baca owes it to his deputies that when they use force against inmates he can credibly assert their justification for doing so. And he owes it to the inmates that they’ll be treated fairly, even if roughly at times. Anything less tarnishes his department’s reputation, and that of police officers everywhere.