Crime & Justice

LA Sheriff Baca dismisses ACLU report on jail brutality

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca defends himself against ACLU jail report, Wednesday, July 28, 2011.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca defends himself against ACLU jail report, Wednesday, July 28, 2011.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca Wednesday dismissed a report by the American Civil Liberties Union that describes deputies regularly brutalizing inmates at downtown jails. He also brushed aside the ACLU’s call for his resignation.

On Thursday's Patt Morrison Show, Baca called the report “an offensive attack that quite frankly offers up no solutions other than something simple: find another person to be the sheriff of L.A. County.”

“It's easy to accuse deputies of being brutal," he said. "It's easy to make mass comments about how everything is running rampant in the jail system,. We just can’t let that violence go unchecked. Deputies are put in precarious places managing violent inmates."

The sheriff said his department investigates all accusations of abuse. Over the years, he said, he has fired some deputies at the jail, but could not provide a figure.

But ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg said his group has collected dozens of stories from inmates abused by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies.

“We have inmates with fractured jaws. We have an inmate whose hand was stomped on by a deputy with his boot and had a shattered knuckle and had to have surgery,” Eliasberg said. He said some of the stories came from a jail chaplain and tutor who witnessed the attacks.

In one case, an inmate at the downtown Men's Central Jail said deputies accused him of stealing mail then punched him, breaking an eye socket, and put him in a cell with two gang members.

Deputies repeatedly ignored the man's cries for help as the gang members raped him while another inmate flushed his head down a toilet to muffle his screams, the man, who had been jailed for making criminal threats, said in a sworn declaration.

The ACLU report arrives as the FBI launches an investigation into abuse at L.A. County jails. In fact, a prominent former FBI agent helped the ACLU compile its report.

Thomas Parker is a former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office.

“I have never seen anything that approaches the level of violence that currently infects the Los Angeles County jail system,” Parker said.

Parker, who said he’s visited dozens of jails in his career, accused sheriff’s officials of failing to properly investigate allegations of abuse by allowing deputies accused of wrongdoing to sit in on interviews with the inmate who is accusing him.

As for Baca’s role in what’s happening at the jail? “An absolute, deliberate indifference on the part of the sheriff and his top commanders as to what was happening right under their noses,” Parker said.

The sheriff responded that he knew Parker and that he was a “nice man.” Baca then invited news reporters to come visit the jail, and promised they would find not a brutal place, but a “hospital-like” atmosphere.

“Anything that involves force is very complicated, and the fact that there’s nothing positive in the (ACLU) report is more alarming than what is negative,” Baca told KPCC's Patt Morrison, adding that his county provides mental health programs to more inmates than others.

The ACLU report described a very different place — one with pervasive violence against inmates and no accountability.

“The level of deputy-on-inmate abuse in the L.A. County jails makes the Rodney King incident look like child’s play,” Elaisberg said.

Baca maintained that ACLU findings are not accurate.

“Truth is hard to find if you’re in a rush, and the ACLU obviously felt a rush to get the report out. They don’t have any substantial proof other than accusations,” Baca said.

The sheriff said he plans to use the report as a starting point to take a closer look at deputy conduct in the jails.

The Associated Press and KPCC's Andrea Wang contributed to this report.