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Investigators slam Sheriff Baca, Tanaka in jail violence probe

September 7, 2012 | 10:52 am


Investigators for a blue-ribbon commission probing allegations of abuse and deputy misconduct in L.A. County's jails issued a searing critique Friday of how Sheriff Lee Baca and his chief deputy managed the department.

Baca failed to adequately monitor and control his deputies' use of force against inmates and was ignorant of significant problems in the jails, the panel's investigators reported.

TanakaBaca's management "insulated" him about some of the allegations, investigators said. Those commanders knew about problems with deputy cliques in the jails but failed to do anything about it. Once Baca learned of the problems, the investigators said, he failed to hold his top deputies accountable.

The panel's investigators -- who are pro bono attorneys -- also focused criticism on Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, saying there was "substantial evidence" that Tanaka urged deputies to be aggressive and "work in the gray area" of law enforcement. The investigators said there was evidence that Tanaka discouraged supervisors from investigating alleged deputy misconduct and "vetoed" efforts to address deputy cliques.

The commission will discuss the findings in more depth later Friday.

Baca and Tanaka could not immediately be reached for comment. But in testimony before the commission in July, both strongly defended their records, though Baca admitted some mistakes.

"We know we screwed up in the past," Baca told members of the county Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence. "I'm a guy that says let's go forward. ... I just need this commission to understand the limits of digging up dirt that doesn't have any water going into it."

[Updated at 11:02 a.m.: While investigators found that the majority of deputies were hard-working and ethical, they concluded that other deputies had a “disturbing mind-set” that valued using force first rather than as a last resort. In addition, some department leaders tolerated and even expressly encouraged "a code of silence" in which jailers were reluctant to report excessive force and other problems.]

Last month, a federal grand jury demanded that sheriff's officials turn over all correspondence they have had with the blue-ribbon commission.

The subpoena suggests that federal authorities, in the midst of a widespread investigation of the jails, are expanding their probe to include allegations unearthed by the commission.

In recent months, the county panel has heard testimony from current and former sheriff's supervisors who have publicly alleged that top managers fostered a culture of abuse inside the jails.

But many more sheriff's employees have spoken to the commission privately. The subpoena could inadvertently force those sheriff's officials to out themselves to the department as informants.

In addition to seeking documents, federal authorities have been conducting interviews with current and former sheriff's officials, some of whom have told The Times that the questions have gone beyond jail issues to include other allegations of misconduct.

Federal prosecutors last year subpoenaed The Times for information about online commenters who complained about jailer misconduct, but that subpoena was withdrawn after the newspaper's attorneys objected.

The FBI's secret investigation of the jails was revealed last year when The Times reported that the bureau had smuggled a cellphone through a corrupt jailer at Men's Central Jail to an inmate working as a confidential federal informant.

Since then, public scrutiny of the jails has intensified. Among the revelations was that top sheriff's officials had raised alarms in internal memos about jailers crafting narratives to impose "jailhouse justice" and supervisors allowing the behavior to go unchecked by conducting shoddy investigations. A retired jail commander told The Times that he tried to take his warnings about gang-like deputy cliques to Baca but was ignored.

Alarmed by the allegations, the county Board of Supervisors created a commission to examine jail abuse. The panel has not yet issued its findings, but its ongoing investigation has included dozens of interviews with sheriff's officials and others. Only a handful have testified before the commission publicly.


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Photos (top): Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. Credit: Los Angeles Times

(bottom) Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Credit: L.A. County Sheriff's Department