LOS ANGELES (CBS) — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal class-action lawsuit Wednesday, accusing Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his top commanders of ignoring a widespread and historical culture of violence by deputies against inmates.
The lawsuit (pdf) was filed on behalf of Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin, who say they were savagely beaten and threatened with violence by deputies while they were pretrial detainees in the jail. Goodwin, 29, is currently housed in Twin Towers.
Peter Eliasburg, legal director of the ACLU/SC, says the lawsuit is directed at Sheriff Baca, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and Chief Dennis Burns because they have allowed deputies to go unpunished, covered up their behavior and have not tried to reform the system.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said Sheriff Baca reached out to the ACLU just last week and invited them to a briefing with his primary detectives on Friday, and there was no mention of a lawsuit at the time.
“It was all in an effort to do this together, we want to work with you, not against you,” Whitmore said. “But in terms of culture, we believe they’re overstating it.”
The lawsuit claims that deputy violence against inmates is especially pervasive in three facilities in downtown Los Angeles: Men’s Central Jail, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the Inmate Reception Center.
According to the lawsuit, deputies sadistically beat inmates who don’t resist, have serious mental illness, who are in wheelchairs, for asking for medical treatment, for the color of their skin or for no apparent reason at all. Inmates have had their heads slammed into walls, been shot multiple times with tasers and have suffered broken legs, fractured eye sockets, shattered jaws, broken teeth, severe head injuries, and other major injuries. The lawsuit claims even civilians have witnessed the violence against inmates.
The complaint includes photographs of inmate injuries as exhibits.
Several incidents of deputy violence against named inmates are detailed in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claims that many deputies belong to gangs inside the jails and sport tattoos to signal their gang membership. Tattoos are earned by breaking inmates’ bones, according to the lawsuit. Violent deputy gangs have operated in the department since the 1980s and possibly since the early 1970s.
“Deputies do not form gangs,” Whitmore said. “Use of force in the jails has actually decreased over the past 6 to 7 months by 50 percent.”
Los Angeles County jail deputies have under fire in the wake of several incidents. One deputy admitted to accepting a bribe last week to smuggle contraband inside a jail, while another was indicted on charges he smuggled heroin in a burrito into a courthouse lockup.
In September, the ACLU issued a report documenting more than 70 recent cases of deputy violence. Not long after the report’s release, it became public that the FBI had launched a criminal probe into deputy-on-inmate violence in county jails. In December, Robert Olmsted, a retired top LASD official, publicly disclosed that Baca and other senior staff have long had knowledge of deputy violence in the jails, according the lawsuit.
Whitmore said he could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit now that it’s been filed.
“If any new allegations are brought up, we certainly will look into them,” he said.