Earl Ofari Hutchinson's take on the politics of the day
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In an exclusive interview on The Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour with host Earl Ofari Hutchinson on KTYM 1460 AM Los Angeles on October 14, Los Angeles County Sheriff, Lee Baca
EOH: How are you addressing the presumed pattern of violence by some Deputies against inmates?
LB: Whenever a problem arises, we have to look at the dynamics that caused the problem. I appreciate the ACLU report as being revealing. We are currently using a 35 person task force to investigate all 78 allegations in the report. Just as important, the leadership has to be candid. My first step was to go into the jails and listen to the inmates and hear where it occurred and listen to their suggestions and concerns. I’m looking at the strategy in a variety of pieces; action, policy and training strategies, along with aspects of improvement. No matter how good anything is, you can still improve it. First is to get into the concerns of the inmates. I’ve done significant revelation in that respect. The inmate culture seems to be the culture of the jail as a whole; and what is the culture of the deputy sheriff when it comes to a matter that could involve force. In the overall assessment of management, we have to do a better job, and do we have enough resources to do the best job possible. The first thing I want to do is have a comprehensive force prevention strategy. We are busy looking at the underlying causes; we need a strategy immediately to have a prevention of force policy. What causes tension that leads to violence in the jail is disrespect. Inmates have a code of their own that says “Be respectful to one another, but if you cross the lines, there will be retaliation to any inmate by other inmates.” But if deputies are being disrespectful to the inmate, it is a contradiction of how to co-exist without problems. The whole issue revolves around respect. In the analysis of the ACLU report, we’ve already had a preliminary and somewhat significant investigation of those incidents. We are not too far apart, but there are some things the ACLU revealed that I need to get into afresh. The dynamics of the deputies is that many have never been in a fight. I think there is an issue there. You go to the academy and get training on using proper techniques, but fights occur in a matter of seconds. There is no lead up other than verbal confrontation between an inmate and deputy, but if the deputy is too verbally aggressive, the inmate might punch the deputy. Once that happens, the deputy responds and other deputies will assist. Before you know it no one is focused on how it began, but in the end, the deputy will always win. The question then is; are they overdoing the force, going beyond what is reasonable. With the Office of Independent Review report, we have discharged or punished 30 deputies in the last several years for excessive force. What is most important is that the inmates function very well in the jail system. The quality of life is never easy for an inmate. They need a greater sense of encouragement by my deputies. I’m listening, but I’m also reforming the jail; more education provided for the inmates to be better prepared when they get out, and a better job of training Deputies to understand not to take it personally.
EOH: Can your task force be independent and recommend major reforms your office will implement?
LB: I believe so. I brought in 3 very outstanding Patrol Captains who are experienced in community problem solving. We are looking at our jail modules and facilities as communities, and they know how to address the needs of a lot of the inmate concerns that lead to anxiety, depression and stress. Deputies need to be reminded that it gets to be unbearable psychologically, and thus inmates will lash out against the deputies. The independent reports are critical to what we do wrong; the Office of Independent Review has been outstanding in insuring that investigative reports are not biased. They are very objective. They vet the authenticity and facts of the situation. I don’t have control over their access; I have given them complete access to the entire department. We are the only police agency in America that has a civil rights group of 6 lawyers headed by a former Prosecutor of the U.S. Attorney’s Office who has successfully prosecuted cases against police officers who have abused citizens of the Southern California area. We will hide nothing. Deputies have rights, too; they are entitled to some degree of Peace Officer Bill of Rights, and we have to work within the framework of what is best for everybody.
EOH: Would you support the recommendation for an independent commission apart from your department?
LB: Yes I do. I support that facts alone should be the dominant result. I welcome the U.S. Attorney’s Office when they feel there is a problem that should be addressed, as well as the FBI. The key to the truth is the eyes and ears of all elements. I think everybody will come to the same conclusion; you cannot alter the facts, unless new information comes in that does. I believe elected officials such as the Board of Supervisors should be a part of it.
EOH: What is your response to those that ask for you to step down?
LB: They will say whatever they have to say, but listening to the two primary sources that started the notion, they have backed down from that. It is a matter that the problems need to be fixed and it is my job to do it, and they are correct. The issue is to prevent as much excess force as possible. The voters will decide. Many people think the inmates are the problem, but that’s no excuse for deputies to also be the problem. We have to look at facts for a reason to use force and those deputies who go overboard; and those deputies who know what happened and refuse to acknowledge it for fear of retaliation. Cameras are being installed, and I think we can fix this. My reform of the jails is to reduce the reason for force through better services to inmates, and the education program to better prepare inmates when they get out of jail.
EOH: Is there a “Code of Silence” that makes deputies scared to report excessive force for fear of retaliation?
LB: It is a problem for some. There is a policy of disclosure in all aspects. The threats never come from Management. The threats are coming from the peer group who are the ones in trouble. There is a need to go harder on deputies threatening other deputies relative to disclosure. It is worthy of not only a policy stronger than the one I have, but it might have to be a law that says any police officer or deputy sheriff who retaliates against another for the sake of intimidation and cover up will be subject to perhaps a misdemeanor and we are able to prosecute these people. They don’t belong in the organization.
EOH: Where should we go with reform?
LB: Simply better management means more management. I took a $128 million cut, which meant I had to restructure the jails and reduce staff. You have a process where deputies are young, have never been in fights, you can almost predict they will overreact in some circumstances. I have to be in the middle of it all. I need to know what the deputies feel about how things went, and comprehensive involvement on my part. Better policy, better training, better supervision.