Supervisors discuss reducing use of force in county jails

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors and inspector general found rare common ground with the Sheriff’s Department April 6, with everyone agreeing that more can be done to further reduce the use of force in county jails.

Assistant Sheriff Bruce Chase, who leads custody operations for the department, presented statistics showing a roughly 28% drop in overall use of force in the downtown jail complexes.

There are no bragging rights and there’s no victory laps intended in this presentation. It’s meant to be statistical,” said Chase, referencing earlier comments by members of the public that the department shouldn’t be proud of the results.

The report, which covers the Men’s Central Jail, Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the Inmate Reception Center, is required under a 2015 federal settlement in the case of Rosas v. Baca.

Residents who read the report online argued that the drop in use of force was correlated with a corresponding drop in the jail population and didn’t reflect any meaningful change.

I am appalled by the statistics,” resident Michelle King told the board. “Like other Angelenos, I want jail [inmates] and community members safe from [sheriff’s department] violence, not slightly less likely to face it while incarcerated.”

However, Chase explained that while the jail population was dramatically reduced in immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the population jumped back up in the last several months of the year as inmates sentenced to state prison were prohibited from being transferred there.

Combined with the first several months of 2020, before large numbers of inmates were released, the result was that the average downtown daily jail population dropped by roughly 9% for the full year, according to the assistant sheriff. Across all jail facilities, it was down about 17%.

We are working, all of us diligently, on alternatives to incarceration. … To bring those numbers down again,” Chase said.

Supervisor Holly Mitchell agreed with the public sentiment.

We have a long ways to go,” Mitchell told Chase. “Not a passing grade, if you will.”

The department is still failing to avoid the most injurious use of force, ranked as Category 3. There were a total of five such incidents versus four in 2019. Most occurred at Men’s Central Jail.

In two of those 2020 incidents, deputies fired special weapons projectiles at inmates who were assaulting another prisoner in a high-security yard. One inmate suffered a cracked rib; another had a fractured orbital bone.

All of these uses of force are serious, each one is investigated individually, and the ultimate goal there is to bring that number to zero,” Chase said.

Both the assistant sheriff and Inspector General Max Huntsman agreed that body cams in the jail would offer more clarity. The county decided to install fixed cameras throughout the jails, in part to move quickly as body cam technology and policies were evolving.  

Huntsman said his staff had slowly come to the conclusion that this wasn’t the best decision in the long run, as the lack of audio makes it hard to understand the circumstances in play.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl focused in on head strikes against inmates, asking Chase how the department can avoid them. She also faulted the report as akin to a confession of sins without any sense of how things are improving.

Chase said the compliance unit is working on policy revisions to make clear that such strikes are a “last resort.” He pointed to his own work in helping to usher out the use of heavy flashlights in 2012.

Mitchell said she was worried not only about the use of force, but a wide range of day-to-day grievances by inmates.

These are fundamental rights … whether you are locked up or not,” she said, supporting inmates’ right to complain without fear of reprisals.

The Office of Inspector General did a spot check on grievances some month ago and found that 40% of those checked were never entered into the tracking system, according to Huntsman.

The inspector general said custody operations personnel are very cooperative with his staff — something he contrasted with the rest of the sheriff’s department — but concerns remain.

I continue to have the grave reservations I’ve always had about the record keeping and the fundamental accuracy of the whole … review process,” Huntsman said.

The assistant sheriff countered that he is committed to disciplining deputies who fail to comply with department policies, but Huntsman said discipline comes too slowly.

The discipline system is seriously broken in terms of its timeliness,” Huntsman said.

The inspector general also pointed to a report by federal monitors highlighting dishonesty by deputies that goes unpunished.

We saw the exact same problem … the facts are downplayed … dishonesty isn’t treated as if it is dishonesty,” Huntsman said. “I think that outside review is critically important to keep the department motivated. … We need to keep the pressure on.”

The assistant sheriff pledged to hold deputies accountable when there are clear violations.

“Integrity issue or lack of integrity is not something we can tolerate,’”Chase said.

The board took no specific action.