Did the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence Go Too Far?

Lee Baca, Los Angeles County Sheriff

I wonder a lot whether public servants have completely lost sight of their purpose. Last September the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence completed its report on L.A. County jails with a host of recommendations that the sheriff has committed to implement such as a new Assistant Sheriff for Custody Division; a new Internal Investigations Division to investigate all injuries to inmates; a new Inspectional Services unit to ensure custody personnel compliance with sheriff policy; recommended that Special Counsel Merrick Bobb,  Office of Independent Review Michael Gennaco, and the Ombudsman, Board of Supervisors (BOS) creations all, rolled into a single Office of Inspector General reporting to them. There are winners and losers under these arrangements that purportedly are to reduce violence in jails perpetrated by deputies.

The sheriff of course wins because the BOS are ever willing to throw money at whatever law enforcement problem that surfaces. Nowhere but in county  law enforcement is mismanagement, incompetence, and lack of vision handsomely rewarded with surveillance cameras, more personnel, additional programs (Education Based Incarceration), and no doubt plenty of other things not made public. Oh yea, a new jail is coming soon to replace new county, the dungeon known as Men’s Central Jail. I worked inside of CJ for seven years through floods caused by faulty plumbing and electrical blackouts: It stinks and everyone inside eventually converts positive for TB. CJ is cruel and unusual punishment for workers and inmates alike. There is no remedy short of demolition if indeed L.A. County needs replacement jail beds despite voices that advocate more schools instead of jails. Sorry, EBI is as close as you’ll get on that one.

The BOS win, at least until the next election. Some had called for an Inspector General all along and is probably the main reason for forming the Citizens’ Commission in the first place. They avoid firing useless units by rolling them all into one and sticking a new high paying position  on top purportedly to do what their other creations was unable to do. As usual, they miss the point of civilian oversight albeit expensively. The inefficiency of piling shit on top of shit is what fuels small and anti government conservative rhetoric.

The prison industrial complex of businesses win: those that supply the sheriff with services and supplies from inmate food, toilet paper, books, clothing, medicine, and whatever the department needs for continuity and maintenance of 18-20,000 male and female inmates: construction contractors and a plethora of consultants.

Unincorporated patrol areas theoretically could gain if deputies now housed in the jails are pushed to the streets in favor of using Custody Assistants in the jails. This proposal has been in place for twenty years but never fully implemented thanks to visionless and weak management and overly influential deputy unions. There is a caveat to this potential win however discussed below.

Losers are easy to identify. That’s you if you pay property taxes locally.

With all of the Commissions’ talk of accountability, little is likely to be achieved, especially in the jails without (r)evolution of the entire department. Part of the reason is that no one knows what jail accountability looks like. What does appropriate or reasonable use of force look like? If workers are to be held accountable for jail service performance, will standards be established that are specific enough to be measured? Will employees have a chance to provide input on these standards, not necessarily through unions? What about the voice of inmate customers? All of the pro bono attorneys from respected law firms, staff, interns, and volunteers didn’t have a describable clue. Interestingly, the commission included no inmates or former inmates that could give first hand experience of county jail life. Of course, current or former inmates might not fall within some definitions of citizens. The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails weren’t invited to the table either. The practice of excluding service recipient or customer input from audits, reviews, and reports have ramifications in other policing activity as well. More on that later.

County unincorporated areas could be real losers when problem deputies end up on the streets. Contract cities could also have this problem. Face it, they have had plenty of practice with excessive force on black and brown jail inmates in the jail which is the same population they are likely to see on the streets. And, as the Citizens’ Commission points out, no one was disciplined for the jail problems, scapegoat maybe, but not disciplined. To find a disciplined jailhouse deputy is as hard as getting L.A. County District Attorney Jacqueline Lacey to file criminal charges against deputies for murder such as the case of Jose Delatrinidad who was shot in the back seven times last November. Alarmingly, no Citizens’ Commission was formed to review the hundreds of police killings over the past five years, a sizable number by sheriff deputies.

What’s the Vision?

What the Citizens Commission failed to do, and what the clueless BOS are incapable of doing, is describing a vision of what sheriff services should look like. This is especially true for jails and patrol, the two most problematic areas. They present no alternative mission statement and produce no ideal goals. Instead, they defer to sheriff developed core value, mission, and creed statements that offer little direction and are no more than words on a plaque or fliers on a bulletin board. While requiring better supervision, as well as a willingness to discipline, fire and prosecute deputies who violate rules and laws will help, we need to go much deeper.

The Commission offered no vision statement that generates purpose and meaning, which is the real starting point. A vision is a picture of what the organization wants to become. It is context for decision making and every big decision that LASD makes should move it closer to its vision. For example, the Compton4COPS vision statement is for Compton to become a city where women and children can walk any street safely at any time day or night. The sheriff needs a vision that can be embraced by all employees and the public. Here’s one from Newport News PD: To take a leading role in making Newport News a place where people want to live, work and play.

Of course, no one wants to make the jail a place where people want to live, work, and play so I’ll only talk about Patrol/Detective Operations that service 9.8 million people.

A mission explains how the organization will achieve the vision and helps the organization to focus on what’s important to carry out everyday activities. The sheriff’s mission statement reads: Lead the fight to prevent crime and injustice. Enforce the law fairly and defend the rights of all, including the incarcerated. Partner with the people we serve to secure and promote safety in our communities. Yep, and they’re able to leap tall buildings in a single bound too. Every deputy is not a leader. Also, the best leaders know how to lead from behind. Communities would benefit greatly if more deputies were simply great team players with other organizations.

The department’s mission statement is not widely understood or acknowledged. In other words, it is lost on the workforce and that employees had nothing to do with its development might be a contributing factor why it is not universally embraced. L.A. County’s overall mission reads: To enrich lives through effective and caring service. That’s okay from an overall service perspective but the sheriff can do better. For example, back to Newport News PD: To work in partnership with citizens and government to provide excellence in police services. Or this from Prince William County: The mission of the Prince William County Police Department is to enhance the quality of life by providing police services through shared responsibility with the public. Note how the last two mission statements reference the customer base while the sheriff’s focus is insular.

A new set of core values for LASD employees to embrace could become a driving force for organizational norms and priorities. The goal should be to establish a set of core values that would be owned and lived by employees, ultimately becoming the organization’s foundational tenets of daily behavior and decision-making. The core values must underpin the mission statement and emphasize productivity, responsibility, innovation, dedication, and ethical actions.

The current set of values reads: As a leader in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, I commit myself to honorably perform my duties with respect for the dignity of all people, integrity to do right and fight wrongs, wisdom to apply common sense and fairness in all I do and courage to stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms. This sounds more like the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. That’s a great thing for folks recovering from alcohol and other drugs but not so great for multifaceted public organizations. As an example Venice, Florida offers this: Be trustworthy, acting with the utmost integrity. Be truthful and dependable. Make impartial decisions, free of bribes, unlawful gifts, and financial or other personal interests that impair judgment or action. Be fair, extending equal opportunities and due process to all parties in matters under consideration. Demonstrate respect for all persons.

LASD would need to involve a large number of employees in the process of coming up with new core values but it is best to leverage the buy-in and engagement of workers. Again, from Prince William County PD: …is responsible for protecting constitutional guarantees and impartially enforcing the law. We believe that integrity is the basis of public trust and that honesty and equality in the delivery of police services is essential. We commit ourselves to uphold these values and to foster cooperation and respect within our community.

The sheriff’s creed or motto reads: My goals are simple; I will always be painfully honest, work as hard as I can, learn as much as I can and hopefully make a difference in people’s lives. The Newport News, VA Police motto: Committed to our community. The sheriff’s creed points inward, Newport’s, outward. Get it? I’d like to see more demonstration of the sheriff’s commitment to communities, especially in Compton, Willowbrook, and So. L.A.

Do you think there is a clear public benefit to revisiting sheriff’s vision, mission, creed, and core values?  The public or maybe a commission with real public tie-in can lead it. This is the starting points commissions fail to address which serve to maintain the status quo in the long run. When LASD leadership adopt and internalize revamped vision, mission, and core values by walking the walk and talking the talk, the rest will follow. It is easy to benchmark and measure progress toward achieving a new vision.

Sheriff Reorganization

A sheriff sergeant told me that all the department really did was rearrange boxes on the organization chart rolled out in May. While I don’t totally agree with that assessment, I fully understand that he means that the sheriff really does not intend to change, particularly from outsider’s recommendations.

On the other hand, contrary to the sergeants opinion now is the opportune time for the sheriff to change substantively and measurably for the better. The new reorg is a great start for an agency that hates change. Sheriff Leroy Baca has had the benefit of constant community engagement during his years as head man. Unlike Sherman Block, he is popular throughout L.A. County because he engages the entire county and has had the opportunity to hear from most elements of an extremely diverse population including the dreaded gang member. He is routinely approached by citizens and non-citizens because he is approachable. He is one of, if not the most approachable elected official in Los Angeles. Because of this, he gets firsthand the concerns of residents.

There is no other institutionalized means by which sheriff’s get the kind of input that Baca has received over the years; not town hall meetings; not city council meetings; and certainly not Tuesday BOS meetings and block club meetings in places like Compton. His management and leadership skill of the sheriff’s department is being tested right now however. With that opportunity, he has a chance to catch up and even surpass what William Bratton accomplished with the LAPD.  It will take five years to install a solid change foundation, it took Bratton  about six.This opportunity is far more relevant to the 9.8 million people in the unincorporated areas and some contract cities that have had issues with sheriff’s services in the past, like Compton, Willowbrook, South Los Angeles, Palmdale, and Lancaster, when compared to the problems of 18,000 jailed inmates.

Baca has done some things that flew in the face of industry and convention. For example, the past twenty years has seen the whole field of alcohol and other drug use professionalize to the point that it is now a useless extension of the criminal justice system where the goal for users is not total abstinence. Some so-called substance abuse counselors believe it’s alright to drink beer and smoke weed personally.  Many people think that marijuana use is harmless. Moreover, prescription drugs are a bigger problem than even deadly designer drugs.

In June 2011, the Baca allowed the Foundation for a Drug-Free World to conduct training courses at his headquarters. Attendees like me received certification as a Drug-Free World Prevention Specialist. Except for nicotine, we were taught about the effects of all drugs including alcohol and prescription drugs. That’s the kind of thing that goes against the grain of and direction of the rest of L.A. County services that is beholden to the pharmaceutical industry’s medical psychiatric model. He has also been known to support the twenty one principles contained in The Way to Happiness, a secular program used successfully in the life skills component of the Teen Intervention Program (TIP) for which I am Communications Secretary. Principle number eight is Do Not Murder, for example.  A good move would be to use Learning How to Learn and Study Skills for Life from Applied Scholastics in the EBI program. In the people business one has to get good tools where you can find it regardless of who gets pissed off. What I find is the one doing the most hollering and jumping up and down is the one doing the least to improve the community.

Who Really Gets Empowered?

Making Los Angeles County Law Enforcement Accountable was the workshop topic at the January 19, 2013 Empowerment Congress Summit promoted by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The summit accomplished at least two things: it provided a forum for L. A. City mayoral candidates and helped roll out the Citizens’ Commission jail report. Nothing empowering was involved and no one that could really affect sheriff policy and practice attended. Many resident policing issues were raised but there was no further discourse and the promised follow up never happened. Many of the attendees were not residents of Los Angeles City and would not participate in the vote for mayor. In other words, that was time wasted. Since there was no serious effort to address workshop issues, that time was wasted too. The Gun Violence Prevention workshop fared no better according to those that attended it.

What Does Empowerment Really Look Like?

True empowerment and engagement won’t be televised but will take the form of ground level up action like that of Rosie Delatrindad, wife of Jose who was killed late last year. It does not wait for or require government definition, approval, organization, or sanction. The response to the George Zimmerman verdict, Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab Spring are three examples. Rosie and 130 other people, mostly residents from Compton, signed a March 12, 2013* petition letter developed by Compton4COPS. I thank those who did sign it which was everyone I spoke to.The letter to Baca called for a reorganization of the sheriff’s department. The main thesis is visible and measurable community engagement  by the whole of the sheriff’s department, not just him and importantly, accountability to residents directly, not through another BOS pile of smelly stuff.

The Compton4COPS letter calls on the LASD to accept as real that fear and distrust of law enforcement is a major barrier to effective policing in places like Compton, Willowbrook, South L.A., Palmdale, and Lancaster.  The LASD must take a leadership role—there’s that word again— by finding ways to overcome the level of distrust. Increased trust will lead to safer communities; better communication; focus on problems identified by the community; and, less use of force litigation. The sheriff is asked to expand his role beyond law enforcement in three ways; 1. By elevating crime prevention and community trust building within the organization 2) engaging the community often and differently, and, 3) accept that resident distrust of deputies and police in general is real. Distrust is exacerbated by media accounts of county jail problems and deputy involved killings.

Baca was asked to reorganize the Sheriff’s Department to put emphasis where it is needed most, satisfying the policing needs of residents. Specifically, creation of two high level units or bureaus is prescribed; Crime Analysis, Prevention & Community Trust Bureau (CAPCTB) and Quality Measurement, Policy Development & Control Bureau (QMPDCB).

The primary charge of CAPCTB is to analyze crime problems, particularly as identified by the community serviced, public dumping, sex trafficking, and hate crimes for example, and design and implement corrective strategies. This bureau will also focus on developing and executing strategies to build trust for law enforcement within communities such as Compton. The LASD needs to develop a comprehensive information outreach and feedback program loop. This will help LASD assess if customer service is good, bad, or indifferent.

The QMPDCB will focus on developing transparent service quality measures based on his department’s mission and strategic goals. If crime control and reduction is a primary goal, adding other objectives to the policing tool bag will sit favorably with communities such as Compton. For example, in addition to arrest, response times, and clearances, station personnel’s effectiveness could also be measured by:

  • Number of problem‐solving meetings held with local businesses & community groups
  • Number of new initiatives from partnering with business & community
  • Measures of citizens’ feelings of safety in their neighborhoods

Clear and understandable policies with actionable and measurable performance indicators will go a long way with improving internal accountability and answer three fundamental questions: How are we doing? Why are we doing it? And, what should we be doing? The recommended organization flow is attached.

Second, rules of community engagement should be clarified and probably redefined.

Historically, rebellions or riots have occurred that were sparked by police activity in communities from Dade County Florida to Alameda County California. Who can forget Los Angeles in August 1965 and April 1992? The charge of the CAPCTB will be to create new engagement rules and new images of policing to offset beatings, fire hose, and canine images from policing tactics used in the past. Strategies will need to be developed for engaging diverse groups and population segments such as youth, seniors, and especially young adults in places such as Compton.

Third, we must all accept that distrust of police is a major impediment to productive relations between law enforcement and communities such as Compton. A few bad deputies inform community perception of the majority and this is not something that is overcome with Public Relations units. It is usually how deputies go about their daily job that determines trustworthiness. Questionable police shootings are the most blatant deterrent to building community trust among other derogating behavior toward residents.

The proposed organization chart shows the additional units placed directly under the sheriff, above the under sheriff.

Sheriff Baca’s March 21, 2013** letter responded to the petition. That letter references another document, Public Trust Policing – Partnering with the Communities We Protect,*** and refers us to work with the Compton Sheriff’s Station captain. The document touts what the sheriff considers its public trust programs but falls short of establishing any sort of baseline by which to measure changes in community trust levels. It is not clear what audience the booklet was intended for or its purpose. With a budget approaching $3 billion the onus for trust building devolves to the LASD. Besides, to effect positive change in Compton requires a revamping of the whole of LASD as described above and in the March 12 letter. That’s the only way to ensure continuity with constantly changing sheriff personnel, including captains.

I’ll reiterate, I am indeed saying that the LASD must change its style of policing entirely if it hopes to better serve communities such as Compton, Willowbrook, South L.A., and, possibly Palmdale and Lancaster. If this can be done without affecting sheriff county-wide services and jails, so be it. Some other cities might be 100% satisfied with sheriff’s services and have few problems with distrust, so why change the wheel instead of one bad lug nut? The answer is that: 1) historically rebellions and riots are more likely to be ignited by police behavior and that in turn adversely affects the whole county, socially and economically and, 2) passage of Measure I in April locks the sheriff into Compton forever (or until the voters overturn it). It might be wise for the sheriff to develop mechanisms to access more segments of the community to determine the validity of perceptions expressed in this and other reports.

To his credit, Sheriff Baca boldly rolled out a new flatter organization structure in May. It was published in that month’s edition of Star & Shield, below. The new org shows custody or jails as an entity under an assistant sheriff all to its self. That’s a good thing. It also shows the new Internal Investigations and Inspectional Services units all reporting directly to him. Those are good things too but seem too narrowly focused on jails. Patrol and Detective operations report to the sheriff through an assistant sheriff. That’s good because patrol might be able to now establish its own identity and direction. Besides, that is where the average person is most likely to come into contact with sheriff’s services.

Conceivably, the items contained in our March 12, letter to Baca could occur within the far right portion of the chart under the assistant sheriff over Administrative/Professional Standards. I say this because that is where crime analyst reside and, hold your breath, there is a new box called Continuous Improvement Unit. That’s huge.

Since none of the reorganization was accompanied by narrative, it remains to be seen if the sergeant’s comment about rearranging boxes is valid. Because there is no narrative, we cannot see around or through the huge elephant in the room: the level of community involvement and engagement. Is customer service an integral part of the mission? The sheriff must overcome a common refrain about its complaint process: 1) “They ain’t gonna do nothing anyway,” and 2) Complaint initiation is unfriendly and discouraging.  In Compton Station there is actually a Plexiglas counter barrier that separates the worker from the public to exacerbate the problem. The sheriff needs to determine community expectations of the sheriff’s department and its role in the community, and develop policy that matches those expectations. The Patrol/Detective Operations must learn and then fully implement community-oriented policing.

The way that deputies go about their jobs in places like Compton, Willowbrook, Athens, Lancaster, Palmdale, and South L.A. will determine the efficacy of the reorganization. Another way to accelerate real change is for LASD to seek Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA) accreditation. CALEA, an independent entity, that was founded in 1979 through the joint efforts of the International Associations of Chiefs of Police, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the National Sheriff’s Association and the Police Executive Research Forum. CALEA allows LASD to transparently police itself from within.

The Commission is charged with administering an accreditation process unique to law enforcement agencies in the United States and several foreign nations. The ultimate goal of the process is to increase the professionalism of law enforcement agencies.

Of course, citizens’ commissions, Inspector Generals, Board Deputies, and all others fail to address issues raised here. Why?

That’s my take on it. I welcome your feedback.

LASD Reorganization May 2013

*Lee Baca final (Autosaved)March 12 letter

**Baca response to Cpt4COPS

***Public Trust_LASD