'Serious' use of force incidents drop in LA County jails; but overall use of force rises

Two women occupy one cell at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.
Two women occupy one cell at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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The number of use of force incidents in L.A. County jails rose 30 percent in 2013 from the previous year. But a sheriff's official told the L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the increase can be seen as a positive change in culture at the department.

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who runs the L.A. County sheriff's department jails, said the bump is mostly a result of better reporting. McDonald said that previously, the sheriff's department did not count certain incidents.

"For example, struggling to place somebody against the wall and place them in handcuffs, no injury," McDonald said. "There were some that felt as though that wasn't a use of force and it is."

Category two and three incidents – described as a "serious" use of force – actually declined in 2013 compared to 2012 and previous years.

And overall, use of force was down in the jail system, compared to such incidents over the past five years. The exception was the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. McDonald said "that's a problem" because Twin Towers generally houses L.A.'s mentally ill inmates.

Richard Drooyan, who was appointed to monitor the implementation of reforms suggested by a Blue Ribbon Panel last year, also updated the board on the issue of violence in the jails.

"The most significant achievements have been a new reorganization and restructure of the department in custody operations, new management over custody operations, and a new use of force policy," Drooyan said.

He also praised the sheriff department's creation of a specific career path for sheriff's deputies who want to work in the jails. Previously, deputies largely saw the jails as a dead end, not as likely to yield promotions as working at a patrol station.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, however, indicated she is still skeptical that the sheriff's department has proper oversight and ways to evaluate management. Reading from an anonymous letter sent to her office concerning allegations of mismanagement of a specific sheriff's program, Molina said she worries that there are still not enough eyes on the department.

"It has many of those issues with the inability about being able to speak truth to power," she said.

Molina, along with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, has proposed creating a civilian commission to monitor the sheriff's department.

Other supervisors have said such a body would be pointless, as it would lack real power. A vote on that proposal is scheduled for next week.