LOS ANGELES – The use of force in county jails resulting in minor to more serious injuries to inmates jumped roughly 58% in the first three months of this year when compared with the last three months of 2018, according to a report provided to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Supervisor Janice Hahn said the data raised concerns.
“One data point doesn’t constitute a trend, but this uptick is troubling,” Hahn said.
However, Richard Drooyan — a court appointed jails monitor who also worked for the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence that first dug into issues of jail violence in 2012 — said he wasn’t concerned.
“It’s very difficult to draw conclusions on a quarter-to-quarter basis,” Drooyan told the board. “I don’t have a concern based upon an increase in the first quarter of 2019 … because I see this in comparison to last year and it’s actually quite similar.”
Pinpointing the reason for such fluctuations can be difficult, Drooyan said.
The data in the biannual report — which updates the board on the implementation of changes required by the 2015 settlement of Rosas, et al. v. Los Angeles County Sheriff — bears out Drooyan’s statement. The numbers for the first quarter of 2018 and first quarter of 2019 — which cover the tenure of former Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Sheriff Alex Villanueva, respectively — are roughly similar.
Cmdr. Sergio Aloma, part of the team that oversees the custody division, focused the board on data showing there have been zero reported incidents of the type of force that results in skull fractures or requires hospitalization since Villanueva took over the department. That kind of deputy-on-inmate violence was largely eliminated during McDonnell’s tenure, though there was one incident in April 2018.
Aloma also highlighted a quote from the panel that monitors the Rosas settlement.
“We noted that the staff culture in the jails had changed and department members were not using force to punish or retaliate against inmates or force that resulted in severe injuries,” the panel wrote in its fifth report filed May 31. “During a site visit in November (2018), the panel did not observe anything that caused any concerns regarding the staff culture or the use of force by department members.”
As for the recent increase, Aloma said the department’s executive team reviews use-of-force reports weekly to identify any issues with particular deputies or disturbing trends.
Category 2 force — which includes any less serious injury — rose from 51 incidents from last October through December to 81 from January to March of this year. Category 1 incidents — which include inmate resistance to handcuffs or hobbling and the use of pepper spray when there is no injury — were also up 22% quarter-over-quarter.
Category 1 covers injury-free scuffles and category 3 tracks severe injuries, with everything in between, including both minor and serious injuries, falling into category 2.
“The category (2) is a very wide range of incidents (including) any complaint of pain or any kind of a minor injury’ but can also involve “punches and punches to the face (and other) serious injuries,” Drooyan said.
Supervisor Hilda Solis pressed Aloma on whether a further breakdown could be provided. Aloma said the categories are dictated by department policy, but said his team could consider providing more detailed reporting to the board.
Solis also suggested having custody deputies wear body cameras, which the board has yet to approve for patrol deputies, despite a pending request from Villanueva and a recommendation from county CEO Sachi Hamai to approve it.
Drooyan said nearly 98% of use-of-force incidents are captured on the hundreds of fixed cameras installed in the jails beginning in 2011. The video system has had a significant impact in reducing the use of force and helping investigate incidents that do happen, he told the board.
However, those cameras don’t capture audio, which body cameras do.
Drooyan said he would rather prioritize putting a few more fixed cameras at Men’s Central Jail, where some recent force incidents escaped capture by the surveillance system, but agreed that body-worn cameras would also be useful.
Both Solis and Hahn said cameras served two purposes.
“We are concerned as much for the safety of our deputies (as for inmates),” Hahn said.