L.A. County Sheriff Watchdog Gets in One Last Snarl before Office is Closed

Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Merrick Bobb

Merrick Bobb monitored the deservedly much-maligned Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for 22 years as special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors until the office was closed this year.

His final report (pdf), released last week, was a scathing takedown of the department, coming just months after Sheriff Lee Baca resigned under fire and new oversight reforms were revved up but barely underway.

The board created a new Office of Inspector General last year and its boss, Max Huntsman, has already complained that he is being blocked by the sheriff’s department from monitoring it. The board voted 3-2 last week not to add an additional civilian oversight commission to the mix after swing-vote Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said there were already enough eyes on the department.

Bobb’s seminannual report said his relationship with Baca, who became sheriff in 1998, was “cordial” but increasingly unproductive as an “anti-reform counter movement took over as certain recent Undersheriffs rose to the forefront.”

He specifically called out former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who resigned under fire last year but continues to be a candidate to replace Baca in the November election runoff. The front-runner is currently Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell.

Bobb said one of Baca’s major failings was delegating too much authority to Tanaka, “who seemed to avoid evolving substantially from his days as a Lynwood Viking.” The Lynwood Vikings were a tattooed clique of deputies best known for its system of rewarding violence against suspects. A federal judge called the group a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” during a class-action lawsuit against the department in the 1990s, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A series of lawsuits back then challenged the “fraternal groups, ”such as the Pirates, Vikings, Grim Reapers, Rattlesnakes and Cavemen, and indicted a culture of racially motivated hostility and violence inside and outside of jails. The county paid out more than $9 million by the end of the decade and vowed to do better.

In large part, Bobb said in his farewell report, recommendations from his office successfully “changed the culture and practices of the LASD in countless areas.” The department treats gays, women and minority residents better and police dogs don’t maul people with “any regularity.” Overall, “One does not hear of the kind of repetitive instances of excessive force and questionable shootings . . . except in the jails.”

Well, yes, there is that.

Lawsuits are way up. Jail beatings were responsible for around half of the $11.5 million paid out by the county in 31 suits over excessive force between January 2013 and April 2014 Bobb described it thusly:

“Brutality seems to have festered in the jails. Across the Department, deputies were affirmatively encouraged to “work in the gray zone”—an apparent green light for unconstitutional or near-unconstitutional misconduct. The jail crisis ultimately led to the resignations of Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff Tanaka.”

The closing of Bobb’s limited office—the semi-annual report was of its few tools—and the county’s rejiggering of the department’s oversight was fueled by the most recent jail scandal. Bobb only referred to it once in an oblique fashion.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged 18 department officials in five separate cases with a wide range of jailhouse-related abuse and corruption late last year. One their sins was hiding an unmasked FBI informant from the FBI. Six have been convicted, so far, and the investigation by the bureau continues.  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Report: Brutality Festered in Jails (by Douglas Morino, Los Angeles Register)

Merrick Bobb’s Final Report Is Candidly Scathing About Paul Tanaka . . . Among Other Topics (by Celeste Fremon, Witness LA)

Baca, Tanaka Sharply Criticized in Final Sheriff Watchdog's Report (by Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times)

L.A. County Rejects Civilian Panel Oversight of Sheriff’s Department (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

34th Semiannual Report of Special Counsel Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (pdf)

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