Sheriff accused of enabling prisoner abuse

Sheriff Lee Baca

A newly released probe accuses Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca of failing to properly manage county jails while breeding a culture where deputies often utilized excessive force.

The report, issued by the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence and reported by the Los Angeles Times, also implicates Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, the department’s second in command, for encouraging deputies to abuse their authority over inmates in county jails.

The report paints Baca as an out-of-touch boss, and found that some of the deputies who report directly to Baca purposely hid a problem of “deputy cliques” in jails. When Baca was made aware of abuses in late 2011, investigators did not find any evidence of Baca taking initiative to deal with the issue.

Investigators found that the majority of deputies working in county jails were ethical and hard-working, but found certain deputies were quick to use violence as a first resort in dealing with inmates. The report found evidence of deputies forcing inmates into strip searches as a means of embarrassment and harassment. Some deputies also let high-risk inmates mix with low-security inmates and did little to intervene when inmates brawled.

The commission’s investigative panel, which consists of pro bono attorneys, sifted through 30,000 pages of documents and listened to hours of testimony from 150 witnesses, including supervising county sheriffs and Baca himself.

“We know we screwed up in the past,” Baca testified to the commission in July. “I’m a guy that says let’s go forward.”

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore defended Baca on Friday, saying he responded when the accusations arose.

“This is the man who responds immediately to things,” Whitmore told the Los Angeles Times. “He should have received more information than he did. But for a man that is out of touch, why didn’t he just ignore it? Why did he respond? Because he is in touch.”

Baca was blamed by the Commission for allowing Tanaka to allegedly run the jails without proper oversight. Tanaka reportedly urged deputies to “work in the gray area” of their powers under the law, and investigators alleged Tanaka also discouraged investigations into misconduct by supervisors.

Whitmore disagreed with the commission’s characterization of the jail system’s environment under Tanaka, saying Tanaka fostered an environment of “creativity and accomplishment.”

The report called for greater training for jail deputies, more supervisors to monitor jailers and an oversight body to monitor the department.

Whitmore said Baca would wait to read the entire report before deciding whether to accept its recommendations.

The City of Malibu pays approximately $6.2 million annually to the county sheriff’s department for police services.