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Crime & Justice

LA County jails report use of force up 11 percent

Inmates are moved at the Los Angeles County Jail.
Inmates are moved at the Los Angeles County Jail.
Courtesy Los Angeles County

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During the first nine months of this year, deputies in LA County jails used force more than 500 times.

That marks an increase of 11 percent compared with last year, according to a report.

Many of those instances involved the use of control holds and chemical agents such as Mace.

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who oversees the County's jail system, spoke to Take Two about the trend.



Did this report surprise you?

It did. Any time we have a change or uptick in numbers it's something we need to pay attention to carefully. But I've got to put it in perspective. You're talking about one additional use of force in the jail or two additional use of force in a jail over the course of a month, because use of force is already pretty low to begin with. 

You've said you don’t know whether or not this signals an increase of force or increase in reporting. What has changed with reporting use of force incidents?

We changed the departmental policy to make it abundantly clear that any time you were required to use your physical force against a resistive inmate, even though the resistance may be relatively minor—no injuries or allegations of abuse of force—that you had to report that in writing. As a result I think some of the uptick is just people having a better understanding. If you are escorting an inmate, for example, and he begins to turn away from you or struggle with you and you use upper body strength to hold him steady or face him toward a wall you must do a report. That wouldn’t have been mandatory before and so that may account for some of the uptick.

Can you tell us the whole range of what constitutes use of force these days?

Most force used in jails results in no injuries. Well over 70 percent of physical contact with inmates is kind of resistive force—handcuffing, escorting, maybe team takedowns, where they have to take people to the ground.

The next range is where an inmate has a minor injury or allegation of an injury or in which we deployed a Taser. That accounts for 25 percent. Only three incidents this year was there substantial injury to the inmate and that would mean a fracture or significant head injury. So only three of those 500 or so events were those type of force.

And yet in 53 of these cases in this report inmates accuse deputies of excessive force. What happened with those allegations?

An inmate can allege we either used force and did not report it or the force used exceeded what was necessary to deal with the problem. Any time we have an allegation we investigate that allegation. The vast majority have been found to be unfounded. Sometimes we can't prove whether it was true or untrue and those lead to kind of unsustained. We can't say it didn’t happen but there are no cameras, no witnesses no injury, nothing else that would indicate whether there was truth in that allegation. And then there are those in which we believe that's true.  So of the 53 in 2014, at least one we believe the employee used unnecessary or excessive force.

Can you talk about the training deputies receive when dealing with use of force for mentally ill inmates and if you think that is adequate?

The good news about the force trends is the use of force trends in our mental health facility actually went down and I believe that's partially targeted with us improving our training for the deputies in how to interact with the mentally ill. Because many of our deputies, this may be new to them. They may have never encountered someone with acute mental health issues and training them in a scenario-type training to help improve their skills, I look forward to doing in 2015.

Other concerns LA County jails face are inmate suicides, unsanitary conditions, vermin-infested jails. The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking a consent decree to take over the jails. How do you handle this situation, especially in an interim capacity?

I'm not really here in an interim capacity. I was hired in March 2013 to come help the jails. I think some of the things being reported are a little exaggerative, like vermin-infested cells. There aren't vermin-infested cells, although all large correctional systems, this one included, have vector control issues. You can have cockroach problems in a kitchen here just like in a kitchen down the street. I'm not saying it's not an issue, though sometimes media and others grab onto individual sections of a report and explode them. I am not saying there aren’t challenges because there are—overcrowding, the conditions and design and staffing levels of Men's Central Jail. These are all issues we continue to work through and I think we're going to challenge the new sheriff to come forward to help continue to refine and reform the jail systems here.