Crime & Justice

ACLU files federal lawsuit against Sheriff Baca over jail abuse

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California Wednesday filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that accuses Sheriff Lee Baca of failing to stop a “pattern and practice of deputy-on-inmate violence” inside L.A. County jails.

Baca is responsible for the operation of the jails. His deputies act as guards. The suit also names three of Baca’s top commanders.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of inmates, says Baca and his commanders “are aware of the culture of deputy violence that pervades the jails but have failed to take reasonable measures to remedy the problem.” The suit says the sheriff is in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, which provide citizens reasonable protection from violence and excessive force.

Baca has yet to respond to the lawsuit. In the past, he has said he is quick to fire deputies who engage in abuse, and has begun implementing reforms to prevent future abuse.

The suit comes amid an FBI investigation into allegations of inmate abuse. The Board of Supervisors has also named a citizen's commission to examine abuse in L.A.'s jails.

The lawsuit says violence is “pervasive,” but concentrated at the Men’s Central Jail, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and Inmate Reception Center – all located in downtown Los Angeles.

“It is commonplace for deputies to subject unresisting inmates to grossly excessive force by slamming inmates heads into walls, punching them in the face with fists, kicking them with boots, and shooting them multiple times with tasers,” the lawsuit states.

The suit lists dozens of examples of inmate abuse. In one, an inmate identified as “Mr. B.” for confidentiality was left with a gash that took 35 stitches after deputes slammed him against a wall, the suit states. The confrontation began, according to the lawsuit, because deputies thought the man had called them gay.

“A deputy said to Mr. B, ‘Baca pays us to take kickboxing classes to whip peoples’ @#!*%,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also accuses Baca and his commanders of failing to stop abuse by a gang-like group of deputies known as the “3000 boys."

“Members of the 3000 boys, who sport a ‘3000’ tattoo on the backs of their necks inflict violence on inmates, foment violence among inmates, and even deploy violence on other deputies who resist their abusive practices,” the lawsuit states. The suit says “deputy gangs” have operated in Sheriff’s Department since as early as the 1970’s.

Baca has been sheriff since 1998.

The lawsuit quotes numerous reports on jail violence over the years. Special Counsel to the Board of Supervisors Merrick Bobb noted in 1999 “troubling inmate deaths at the hands of custody personnel” and “vigilante-like behavior” at the jails.

The ACLU released this video of testimony related to prisoner abuse at a jail facility: