LA sheriff faces mounting legal challenges

Jail commanders condoning the beating of inmates. Evidence withheld from inmates accused of attacking guards. A photo of a woman wearing an official-looking badge while brandishing handguns at a nightclub.

Allegations and litigation continue to dog Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who has acknowledged being out of touch about problems in his jails and failing to reform his massive department that oversees the largest county jail system in the nation.

Bad news in the past week has come from his own brass, his chief critics and a photo that surfaced in an unrelated federal investigation — all serving to sully the reputation of the popular four-term sheriff, who enjoys the limelight and is flown around the world at the invitation of others to talk about policing tactics.

"We could call for his resignation daily, but it's not going to do any good," said Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU Southern California legal director, who called for Baca to step down late last year. "If he stays on, he's got to fix these problems. There are some glimmers of hope, but it's far from what we'd like to see."

The American Civil Liberties Union, a constant critic of the sheriff and a court-appointed monitor of jail conditions, sued Tuesday alleging that inmates charged with assaulting deputies have been unable to get evidence that could help exonerate them.

At the core of the problems facing the department is how its deputies treat some of the estimated 15,000 inmates in county jails. The ACLU has filed another lawsuit accusing Baca and some other department officials of condoning violence against inmates.

Last year the civil rights group released a report that documented more than 70 cases of alleged abuse and other misconduct by deputies, many of which occurred at Men's Central Jail. The FBI has launched its own investigation and asked for internal department records dealing with inmate abuse.

On July 6, Capt. Michael Bornman testified before a county commission looking into deputy abuse in the jails that the former head of the jail, Capt. Daniel Cruz, resisted efforts to investigate employees who were accused of excessive force. Bornman described a culture of brutality where Cruz allegedly joked about not hitting inmates in their face so marks wouldn't be visible. Cruz has denied the accusations.

However, Bornman said his boss has been addressing and correcting the problems in the jails.

Baca, 70, who has said he's to blame for deputy misconduct against inmates and wasn't available for comment Friday, pointed out in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that some of the media coverage has been unfair.

"Criticism is necessary; so are all the facts," Baca wrote to the paper's editor on Friday regarding Bornman's testimony. "I simply ask you to present both."

Baca has considered closing Men's Central Jail, one of the county's oldest and largest jails where some of the abuse has been reported. He also has created a database to track inmate complaints.

Baca has defended his leadership and whether he's been able to address problems within such a large organization. Critics have said his approach has allowed deputies to create gang-like groups that intimidate and beat up inmates.

"He is not thinking of stepping down, he's stepping up," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. "This sheriff is not afraid of criticism. He uses it as a way to make his department better. And this department is the best it's ever been."

Jonathan Goodwin said he was attacked by several deputies in December 2010 after he was placed in jail for a parole violation. He had a bloody nose, cuts over his eye and bruises on his body, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Goodwin's attorney filed a motion to determine if there had been previous complaints against the deputies but was informed there weren't any. The lawyer ended up contacting ACLU and found that another inmate had made similar allegations against one of the deputies.

Goodwin, who was facing up to 17 years in prison, was acquitted of assault charges in May.

"I'm lucky to be here rather than state prison but I'm sure that there are lots of other people who are not so lucky," Goodwin said at a news conference regarding the lawsuit, which seeks an order by a judge to stop the alleged sheriff's tactic of hiding information.

Baca has had a difficult challenge with realignment where non-violent offenders are sent to county lockup instead of state prison. More than 5,000 inmates have been placed in Los Angeles County jails since last fall and bed space will likely run out by the end of the year.

Baca's department is considering the early release for those convicted of low-level crimes and has been talking with officials in two cities in Kern County that currently have empty jails that could accommodate up to 1,000 inmates.

Baca also was criticized this week for failing to recall about 200 badges provided to public officials so they could easily access a command post during an emergency or disaster.

His department had to go on the defensive Wednesday when a picture of a buxom woman wearing a sheriff-issued badge and toting two handguns in a nightclub was published by various media outlets. The photo was an exhibit in a federal corruption case.

Whitmore said the decision to get the badges back was made in January, despite a 2007 opinion by then-state Attorney General Jerry Brown that suggested local law enforcement agencies might run into trouble if they issue badges to the public.

"It's been very slow to stop this process in Los Angeles," said former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, who noted many other law enforcement agencies have offered badges before. "They should have just stopped it. There is no sense of getting your department in trouble because of stuff like that."

The host of problems facing Baca's department is similar to what the Los Angeles Police Department had to cope with in the wake of the Rodney King beating and the Rampart corruption scandal, Eliasberg said. Under the leadership of former LAPD Chief William Bratton and a decade-long federal consent decree, LAPD emerged as a better policing agency.

Eliasberg believes the Sheriff's Department hasn't quite gotten to the point that its cross-town counterparts reached in dealing with the issues that plagued them.

"They are still in a state of denial about the extent of their problems," Eliasberg said. "It may be that the department needs to go through some more pain."