In L.A. County jails, deputies punching inmates’ heads is a ‘persistent problem,’ monitor finds

“It is time for the jail culture to stop supporting behaviors that are forbidden by policy," the monitors wrote


By Alene Tchekmedyian and Libor Jany
Los Angeles Times
        
LOS ANGELES — In an L.A. County jail last year, a sheriff’s deputy was escorting an inmate when the inmate walked away. Without hesitation, the deputy grabbed the man’s chest and slammed him into a wall.

That deputy and another then punched the inmate several times in the head as they took him to the floor, according to a report released Thursday, because they “‘feared’ that the inmate might become assaultive.”

The violent incident at the inmate reception center and others were highlighted in a scathing report by court-appointed monitors, who have been overseeing jail conditions since 2016 as part of a settlement in a federal class-action lawsuit related to beatings in the lockups.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva during a news conference at the Hall of Justice on May 26, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva during a news conference at the Hall of Justice on May 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

The monitors wrote that deputies punching inmates in the head was a “persistent problem” in the downtown L.A. jails run by the Sheriff’s Department.

“No issue has been discussed more with management over the last six years and especially in the last two years, to little avail,” the monitors, Robert Houston and Jeffrey Schwartz, wrote in the report filed in U.S. District Court this week. They said the Sheriff’s Department had regressed or plateaued in key areas where it had initially shown “great progress.”

“We are no longer seeing progression towards professional management of force situations,” the monitors wrote. “It is time for the jail culture to stop supporting behaviors that are forbidden by policy.”

The Sheriff’s Department said in a statement late Friday that it’s “working closely with the monitors to address any concerns while maintaining compliance with our agreements despite the significant challenges the past two years,” pointing to the pandemic as well as budget and staffing shortages.

Lex Steppling, national director of organizing for Dignity & Power Now, which advocates for incarcerated people and their families, said the report demonstrates “what everybody’s been knowing longer than I’ve been alive.”

“Regardless of the number of good people who work for LASD, and there are good people working for the department ... it’s a department beyond repair. It’s unfixable,” Steppling said. “Nothing should be allowed to fail for as long as it’s allowed to fail.”

Peter Eliasberg, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the report shows there’s a serious problem with deputies using excessive force in the lockups.

“The monitors make clear that this isn’t just deputy behavior; it’s a failure of accountability all the way up the supervisory chain,” Eliasberg said, adding that the ultimate responsibility rests with Sheriff Alex Villanueva. “It’s on his watch, and it’s his responsibility.”

Eliasberg added that this was the second time in recent memory that a court-appointed monitor has highlighted “major, major problems” with the consent decree.

“What that really speaks to (is) the county’s utter inability to run a jail system,” he said.

In its 10th such report, the monitors reviewed the Sheriff’s Department’s compliance with the settlement agreement for the first half of 2021. They reviewed internal reports on 50 uses of force. In some cases, they wrote, a use of force short of head strikes was justified, but in other cases any use of force was avoidable.

They added that deputies lacked skills in de-escalation.

They said supervisors “almost always” failed to note when head punches were out of policy. Deputies using improper force were sent to remedial training and seldom disciplined, the report said.

The monitors also pointed to an incident in September in which a gun may have been smuggled into Men’s Central Jail. That resulted in a strip search and X-ray search of a group of inmates, many of whom were interviewed by the monitors.

According to the report, the inmates said they were taken out of their cells in the morning without explanation, strip searched, then forced to walk naked en masse through the jail, passing male and female staff members, some of whom mocked them. The inmates said that they were given boxers and kept barefoot in a yard for hours.

©2022 Los Angeles Times.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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