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Complaints on deputies stalled for 100 or more days, monitor says

May 7, 2012 | 12:08 pm

Sheriff Lee Baca

An independent monitor of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has found shortcomings in the agency’s handling of complaints about its deputies by members of the public, according to a report released Monday.

Specifically, the analysis of complaints filed in 2010 found that a majority of cases were not handled in a timely manner -– with major stations taking more than 100 days on average to forward the complaints to headquarters. Department policy requires it be done in 60 days. One complaint lingered for 659 days.

“A lack of promptness can communicate to the public that the Department is not concerned with responding to or vigorously investigating their complaints of deputy misconduct,” according to the report, “and that there is a lack of accountability for such lapses.”

The lagging would negatively impact the currency of the department’s personnel database meant to detect problem deputies. In general, however, Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors, found that complaints were investigated thoroughly, even when the people complaining provided scant specifics.

Bobb’s analysis found that only in about 14% of cases were the probes faulty. For example, in one case a man complained that a deputy stopped him without cause and refused to look at his medical marijuana card, but because the department could not determine who the deputy in question was, the deputy was exonerated.

Cases that lack that kind of relevant information, Bobb said, should instead result in “unable to make a determination” findings. The report attributed the delays in probes, and occasional misclassification of complaints, to low staffing and a perception that meeting deadlines on the complaints is not a priority.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore acknowledged “there was a need to improve … we can always do better,” but added that overall the report is “very complimentary.”

Bobb also waded into the sheriff’s management of the jails, which are currently the subject of intense public scrutiny and an FBI probe examining allegations of abuse and other deputy misconduct. Bobb pointed to issues like "deputy gangs" forming in the jails, such as the "3000" clique that got into a brawl with fellow deputies, and some of the most inexperienced deputies watching over some of the jail’s most hardened criminals.

The report echoes Sheriff Lee Baca’s assertion that problems in the jails festered because his top managers insulated him from bad news. Bobb warns Baca that he should achieve “a delegation of authority, not an abdication of it.”

Baca, Bobb writes, has “a warm and capacious heart” and can be trusted to address problems in the nation’s largest jail system when he is aware of them.

At the same time, however, Bobb notes a commander who said he tried to inform Baca about excessive force and “deputy gangs in the jail.” Commander Robert Olmsted told The Times he tried on two separate occasions to discuss abuse and deputy cliques with Baca but was rebuffed.

Asked in an interview why he asserts Baca was insulated from problems, despite one of his top managers saying Baca ignored his warnings, Bobb said he could not explain the inconsistency. Bobb also cites concerns that Baca should take a more active role in who is promoted within the department. Olmsted has blamed the promotion of Capt. Daniel Cruz to succeed him and oversee Men’s Central Jail as a mistake that allowed major problems in the lockup to worsen.

Bobb did not cite any promotions he believes were problematic. The department denies that Baca does not play an active role in promotions. In his report, Bobb is vague, saying “whether the Sheriff has or has not over-delegated in this area is not for us to decide.”

Bobb also raises the specter that a team of commanders Baca installed to reform the jails and report directly to Baca might not actually be reporting directly to him because of loyalty to Baca’s second in command, Paul Tanaka. The report, however, raises that issue only to discredit it, and says the task force has performed well.

The report also describes a captain who had been “trying to sound an alarm,” an apparent allusion to former Men’s Central Jail Capt. John Clark, who was blocked by Tanaka in his attempt several years ago to regularly move deputies around the jail. That is a solution some have said would have prevented deputy cliques.

Clark, however, has said under oath that the change was not meant to address deputy cliques or groups, which he did not believe existed. Tanaka has said that he opposed the change because it would disrupt hundreds of deputies in an attempt to move a few problematic ones and would have faced serious opposition from the deputies’ union. Bobb goes on to say that he has been monitoring investigations of use of force in the jail from February and has been pleased with “the trend spotting for patterns and individuals."

“Nonetheless, we saw cases where force was arguably avoidable or disproportionate,” the report states. “Control of excessive force in the jails remains a work in progress. It will not be solved without a change of culture.”


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— Robert Faturechi

Photo: Sheriff Lee Baca. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times