Feds Needed to Clean Up LA Sheriffs Department?

fbi-350There is a compelling need for the Department of Justice to intervene against the longstanding and unconstitutional patterns and practices of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department. The Justice Department should file a civil action in order to monitor the Sheriff’s Department under a consent decree or other federal court order to eliminate the pattern and practice of abuse and corruption.

This week’s indictment by a federal grand jury of 16 deputies and 2 former deputies for excessive force and obstruction of justice in county jails clearly demonstrates that only the federal government can stop the abuse and corruption that are systemic in the LASD.

The people of Los Angeles cannot trust the Sheriff’s Department to reform and police itself. The Kolts Report in 1992 documented that a central focus of abuse is the Department’s jail system. The need remains to make the jails a central focus of reform. See, e.g., Special Counsel James Kolts, The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department 237-48 (1992).

The County Board of Supervisors may argue that their recent appointment of an Inspector Generalwill cure the problem without outside intervention. Our response is, first,that the proposal for an Inspector General languished for months before the Supervisors adopted it in a last-minute effort to avoid federal oversight. The federal government has acted as a prod to local action that was long overdue. Second, the Inspector General is required to turn any findings and recommendations over to the very Supervisors who have failed to resolve these festering issues for many years. The people of Los Angeles cannot expect the problems of abuse and corruption to be fairly and thoroughly addressed by the elected officials responsible for allowing them to grow and multiply in the first place. Finally, the newInspector General lacks not only the enforcement powers but the staffing and funding to pursue a massive, long-entrenched crisis to a real solution.

Federal intervention once again appears to be the only path to real reform in the largest local jail system in the United States.

Congress gave the Justice Department the authority to investigate patterns and practices of police abuse by state and local law enforcement agencies and to bring lawsuits to remedythose abuses. The Justice Department should file a civil action to eliminate the pattern and practice of abuse and corruption.

Section 14141 of the U.S. Code prohibits law enforcement officers or officials from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights, privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. It gives the Justice Department the authority to intervene where local systems of police accountability have failed. The Sheriff’s Department scandal is just such a situation. If this is not a pattern and practice of police abuse, what is?

We ourselves wrote to Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee in 2000 successfully pleading for federal action during the Rampart police misconduct scandal. The Justice Department persuaded the City of Los Angeles to accept and implement a longlist of reforms. That chapter of our history was a success by nearly all accounts. With that previous consent decree as a model, we urge you to help us take the next step in the history of police reform, without delay. See Tom Hayden, Paul Hoffman, and Robert García, This Case Calls for a Truly Outside Inquiry, L.A. Times, Feb. 20, 2000.

Abuse and corruption in the Sheriff’s Department undermines any reform of the LAPD. People who are presumed innocent and who remain in custody after arraignment are remanded to the custody of the Sheriff’s Department if they are arrested by the LAPD. Innocent people are entitled to be free from abuse and corruption at the hands of the police and the sheriff. LAPD cannot turn a blind eye and send innocent suspects to the county jail without accepting full responsibility and accountability for the life and safety of the suspects. See LAPD web site, “Jail and Related Questions.”

The Department of Justice should secure as part of the remedy in court independent civilian oversight to oversee the Sheriff’s Department in the long term.

tom haydenThe federal criminal investigation is not enough to achieve reform. The criminal probe focuses on proving the culpability of individual deputies beyond a reasonable doubt. The civil action for a pattern and practice of abuse and corruption would focus on institutional reform of the Sheriff’s Department to eliminate the pattern or practice by a preponderance of the evidence.

The Justice Department can and must play a major role in ensuring that this scandal, unlike others before it, really does lead to the structural reform and continuing oversight that are essential to solve the problems of the Sheriff’s Department. See Robert García, Riots and Rebellion: Los Angeles Police Reform Time Line 1965-2012, KCET Departures.

Tom Hayden
The Peace Exchange Bulletin

Published by the LA Progressive on December 12, 2013
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About Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.