It was a bad day for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department yesterday as federal prosecutors charged 18 current and former officers with excessive use of force and obstruction of justice, including the wanton beating of inmates and even visitors to the county jails.
Federal law enforcement officials said the charges came as part of a massive probe of misconduct and abuse of inmates in county jails. All of the officers involved worked in the jails in downtown Los Angeles. They were charged yesterday with the exception of two who were traveling.
The Los Angeles County jail system is the largest in the nation and has been under intense federal scrutiny for more than two years after a string of lawsuits accusing deputies of abusing inmates.
Of the four indictments returned Monday, one of them involved seven officers who were supposed to be monitoring the jails’ internal affairs. Two lieutenants actually tried to hide an inmate after they discovered he was an informant for the FBI investigation.
The officers were charged with extensive criminal activities to hide their wrongdoing, including trying to obtain a court order from a county judge to get information about the federal investigation and threatening an FBI agent with arrest at her home.
“These incidents did not take place in a vacuum,” André Birotte Jr., the United States attorney for Los Angeles, said Monday at a news conference.
“Certain behavior had become institutionalized, and a group of officers considered themselves to be above the law,” he said. “Instead of ensuring the law is defended, they are accused of taking steps to prevent that.”
According to the indictment, three years ago a sheriff’s deputy handcuffed a visitor who was asking about his inability to visit his jailed brother, took him to a break room and threw him against a refrigerator, fracturing his arm and cutting his nose and face. Afterward, four deputies tried to have him falsely charged with resisting an executive officer. They detained the man for about five days and ultimately he was released without being charged.
The charges bring to mind the case of Christopher Dorner who wound up killing four people last February, including three police officers, and wounding three more officers after what he described as his wrongful termination by a Los Angeles Police Department. He described the department as racist and corrupt in a long, detailed, 6,000-word manifesto that he published on Facebook.
Dorner, 33, exacted revenge by threatening to kill the LAPD employees involved in his termination and their families, resulting in a manhunt that was one of the most memorable and riveting news stories in recent memory, on par with O.J. Simpson’s 1994 police chase in the white Bronco or Rodney King’s beating by police in 1991.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who is facing several challengers in his re-election campaign next year, said he responded to all charges of misconduct as soon as he was aware of them. But critics like the American Civil Liberties Union say that’s simply not the case.
Baca said yesterday that the department had cooperated fully with the investigation, and he defended the county jails as the “safest jails in the United States.”
“We do not tolerate misconduct by any deputies,” he said.
Baca said the officers charged would be placed on unpaid leave.
“My employees, 99.9 percent of them, also do outstanding work,” the sheriff said.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called for the county to take a greater oversight role over the Sheriff’s Department.
“Ultimately, the next step in this process of reform is oversight and this should not be taken lightly because of the need to make sure that we are building a culture where no one operates under the impression they are above the law,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Ridley-Thomas suggested they use the blue-ribbon panel that he and Supervisor Gloria Molina proposed earlier this year that stalled for the lack of a third vote on the five-member Board of Supervisors.
He said the effort would be like the commission that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department, which was rocked by major misconduct convictions in an anti-gang unit during the so-called Rampart scandal in the 1990s.