Los Angeles County’s national Sheriff of the Year, Lee Baca, may have seen his candidacy for re-election next year take a bit of a hit when federal authorities charged 18 current and former department members Monday with excessive use of force and obstruction of justice.
The charges span five separate criminal cases that began as a probe of illegal conduct by deputies in jails and expanded to civil rights violations that included unlawful arrests. The U.S. Attorneys Office, in announcing the charges and 16 arrests, said that higher-ups are also implicated.
“Our investigation also found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum—in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized,” U.S. Attorney André Birotte said in a press release. “The pattern of activity alleged in the obstruction of justice case shows how some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law.”
The five cases unveiled yesterday are:
United States v. Brunsting and Branum—Deputy Sheriffs Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum were charged in a six-count indictment with civil rights violations and making false statements in reports about a jail inmate who was beaten.
United States v. Gonzalez, et al. —A sergeant and four deputies were charged with civil rights violations for detaining five people who were trying to visit inmates at the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail. Among the detainees were the Austrian counsel general and her husband, who were handcuffed. In one incident, a man had his arm broken and shoulder dislocated.
United States v. Thompson, et al. —A six-count indictment alleged a broad conspiracy to jack around the FBI during an investigation. Deputies reportedly found out that an inmate was an FBI informer and hid him from the FBI and U.S. Marshall’s Office, which were trying to fetch him for testimony before a federal grand jury in a civil rights investigation. After deputies failed to convince a judge to issue an order compelling the FBI to release information about its investigation, deputies showed up at an FBI agent’s home and allegedly attempted to extract the information using false allegations they had an arrest warrant for the agent.
United States v. Piquette—Deputy Richard Piquette, currently on leave, was charged with illegally manufacturing and possessing an unregistered assault rifle.
United States v. Khounthavong, et al.—This complaint does not involve on-the-job misconduct. It alleges that three deputies, who are all brothers, made false statements to two banks in purchasing a home in Corona after walking away from an underwater mortgage on another large house.
When Baca was first sworn in as sheriff in 1998, he acknowledged that the sheriff’s department had a deserved reputation for excessive force and pledged to do something about it. The department is still the poster child for jailhouse abuse, and new revelations about misconduct by deputies seem to surface weekly.
The FBI has been conducting investigations of the department since at least 2011. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the department in 2012 and released a report documenting more than 70 cases of alleged misconduct by deputies. The ACLU claimed the sheriff and his top officers condoned violence against jail inmates.