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Sheriff Baca agrees to sweeping reforms amid scandal

October 3, 2012 |  1:48 pm

Faced with mounting pressure over a jail abuse scandal and criticism of his management, Sheriff Lee Baca on Wednesday agreed to dozens of reforms including the establishment of an independent inspector general to scrutinize Sheriff's Department operations.

The move would create significantly stronger civilian monitoring of the Sheriff's Department, with an inspector general having the power to conduct investigations both inside the nation's largest jail system and elsewhere in the department.

Baca's comments came several days after a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors blamed the sheriff for the problems of excessive force in the jail system. The panel said Baca did not heed repeated warnings about the problems.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

Baca said he plans to implement all of the commission recommendations.

"I couldn't have written them better myself. We will be a stronger and safer jail," Baca said at a news conference inside the chapel of Men's Central Jail attended by reporters, inmates and command staff.

Baca also agreed to hire an outside custody expert to run the jails. But he said he had no immediate plans to discipline senior managers who he had previously claimed kept him in the dark about problems in the jails. Undersheriff Paul Tanaka is now under investigation over allegations that he helped foster a culture of abuse among deputies. But Baca said those allegations had been disputed by others.

Among the reforms the commission recommended:

-- 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.

The county commission, which was created last year to examine allegations of jail abuse, released a 194-page report Friday 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.

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.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

The release of the report was 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.

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.

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--Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard
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