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Sheriff Baca failed to halt jail abuse, panel says in urging reforms

September 28, 2012 | 10:03 am

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department needs top-to-bottom reforms to fix failures of leadership by Sheriff Lee Baca, who allowed excessive force by deputies to fester in his jails despite repeated warnings, a blue-ribbon commission concluded Friday.

“If a chief executive officer in private business had remained in the dark or ignored problems plaguing one of the company’s primary services for years, that company’s board of directors likely would not have hesitated to replace the CEO,” the commission wrote.

The county commission, which was created last year to examine allegations of jail abuse, released a 194-page report condemning Baca and his top aides and recommending more than 60 reforms that included a management shake-up, harsher penalties for excessive force and dishonesty,  and the formation of a new civilian watchdog.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

The creation of an inspector general position would represent a historic transformation of the department’s civilian monitoring by providing a politically insulated, outside civilian office that would have the power to conduct its own investigations.

The release of the report is a major milestone in the jail-abuse scandal that erupted more than a year ago when The Times revealed that the FBI was secretly investigating the jails. Federal agents went so far as to smuggle a cellphone through a corrupt jailer to an inmate working as a confidential informant. Other allegations of abuse and mismanagement followed in subsequent months.

The seven-member commission, which included former judges and a police chief, based its report on interviews with current and former sheriff’s officials, other jailhouse witnesses, testimony from experts and internal department records. Its investigation painted a grim image of Baca’s jails over the years. Among the findings were that top supervisors made jokes about inmate abuse, encouraged deputies to push ethical boundaries and ignored alarming signs of problems with excessive force.

“There has been a persistent pattern of unnecessary and excessive use of force in the Los Angeles County jails,” the commission concluded. “LASD personnel have used force against inmates when the force was disproportionate to the threat posed or there was no threat at all.”

The commission called on Baca to become “personally engaged in oversight of the jails” and to “hold his high-level managers accountable for failing to address use-of-force problems.” Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, whom the commission accused of discouraging discipline for misconduct, should have no responsibility for the department’s custody operations, the commission said.

Among other reforms the commission recommended were:

--Appointing a new head of custody, with experience managing a large correctional facility, who would answer directly to the sheriff.

--Revamping investigations and discipline of deputy misconduct and ending the practice of allowing sergeants to probe force incidents involving deputies they directly supervise.

--Creating a separate custody division with a professional workforce who would spend their careers in the jails.

--Establishing a firm zero-tolerance policy for acts of dishonesty.

--Adding more supervisors to monitor deputies in the jails.

--Creating a new internal audit and inspections division.

Baca can’t be forced to implement any of the commission’s recommendations, but at least one county supervisor has previously said she’d call for his resignation if he failed to go ahead with the reforms.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said Thursday afternoon, prior to the report’s release, that Baca would be assigning his own investigators to vet the commission’s findings. Asked why Baca would need to investigate an investigation, Whitmore said “because seeing is believing. He wants everything that’s put forth to be reinforced by his investigators, and by the people he has who are trained to do this. He doesn’t want to just accept a report without analyzing it, studying it.”

Whitmore said that he expects Baca to be able to implement some of the suggested reforms without further investigation. He said the sheriff’s own probe would be completed “sooner rather than later,” declining to give a specific timeframe.

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-- Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard

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