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Under fire: Sheriff’s department fails to end its systemic abuse of prisoners

Updated: Apr 16, 2022

Compliance by deputies is at a low as accounts of ‘head shots’ increase despite changes in department policy.

By Matthew Royer, News Editor

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. (Jose Callejas/The Valley Star)

In its eighth year of existence, a panel of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department monitors released their tenth report revealing a “jail culture” in county prisons in which deputies use disciplinary methods outlawed by department policy.

The panel, which was formed in 2016, monitors the Sheriff’s Department’s ongoing operations of the county’s jail systems. While the monitors observed progress towards the beginning of the panel’s formation, in its most recent report, the group stated that they were “no longer seeing progression towards professional management of force situations.” Force situations being the use of physical altercations to manage groups of prisoners or punishment of individuals within the system.

Monitors began to observe and scrutinize the prison system after the court settlement of Rosa v. Baca, in which the ACLU successfully challenged former County Sheriff Lee Baca’s “Cruel and Usual Punishment” to reform the systemic pattern of abuse he allegedly knew was plaguing prisons in the county. This included Men's Central Jail, Twin Towers and the Inmate Reception Center of Los Angeles County.

Since Alex Villanueva took over as sheriff in 2018, the panel has reported to jail management and the courts a plateau of upholding policy and possibly even a downturn in the progress to eliminate the abuse of prisoners. This stagnation includes the use of “head shots” — repeated punches to the skull — which are not being reported in accurate numbers.

The incumbent Sheriff has been under fire repeatedly during his term in office and has constantly been accused of running a department that allegedly protects deputy gangs, uses excessive force, denying of county COVID-19 protection measures and using his public office to intimidate his political opponents.

“Villanueva is also a product of this deep-rooted culture,” reads a statement on the ACLU website. “When placed in the context of the administrations that preceded him, Villanueva’s hostility to oversight, transparency, and accountability, and his disinterest in stemming deputy violence and misconduct, including deputy gangs, is no outlier. The current administration is only the most recent illustration of the ways the County’s oversight structures come up seriously short and are largely powerless when a sheriff refuses to cooperate voluntarily.”

According to A Tradition of Violence, Knock LA’s extensive investigation into the department’s fifty-year history of deputy gangs and prisons, “the County’s jails are ideal breeding grounds for gangs.” In some instances, deputies could prove themselves to their fellow colleagues and “earn the ink” (their tattoo) by beating inmates and filing false reports after the fact.

While progress was initially made before Villanueva, the panel has filed with the court their belief and observations that there has been an intentional lack of progress within the deputy-run systems, arguing that changes must be made in agreement with the settlement signed in 2014.

“It has never been more clear what type of leader Alex Villanueva is,” said Lt. Sheriff and candidate for Sheriff Eric Strong in a statement on Thursday. “The Sheriff sets the tone for the entire Sheriff’s Department. Villanueva has set a tone for corruption and abusive behavior.”

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