For nearly two years, the Department of Justice has been conducting a criminal probe into allegations of abuse and violence in the Los Angeles County jails.
On Thursday, the Justice Department informed Sheriff Lee Baca and the county that it is opening a second investigation that will examine whether sheriff’s deputies engaged in a pattern of excessive force, and whether the department failed to implement broad reforms that the sheriff agreed to in 2002 involving mentally ill inmates.
This second investigation is extremely troubling. After all, this is the sheriff who referred to himself as a social worker in a 2010 interview with my colleague Patt Morrison, and who considers himself an advocate for the mentally ill in the jails.
If he’s an advocate, then I think he’s done a pretty poor job of it. Just consider that he agreed to implement sweeping reforms in 2002 as part of a memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department. That deal called for training deputies to deal with mentally ill inmates and in suicide prevention and to make other improvements to avoid a civil rights lawsuit. And now, a decade later, the Justice Department is once again raising questions about the treatment of those inmates.
Among the concerns raised by federal officials in a letter to Baca on Thursday are a recent increase in suicides in the jails, as well as questions over why “a growing number of prisoners with serious mental illness continue to be housed in obsolete and dilapidated conditions at Men’s Central Jail.”
The new probe is surely not a surprising development to those who have followed Baca’s handling of the jails. Last year, the county Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence found that more than “30% of the use-of-force incidents in custody involved individuals who have a mental history.”
That same commission also noted that although the 2002 agreement provided great promise for change, the sheriff appeared to have no memory of it. The commissioners wrote that eight years after Baca signed it, he said in a sworn deposition that “he had never seen this agreement, was unaware of any DOJ findings regarding mistreatment of mentally ill inmates in the county jails, and had no knowledge of the MOA or the DOJ findings letter underlying the agreement.”
With luck, the federal probe will help jog Baca’s memory about what needs to be done. And more important, perhaps news of the latest investigation will prompt county voters to think twice about whether Baca deserves to stay in office.
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