December 10, 2013
The Honorable Eric Holder
Attorney General of the United States
United States Department of Justice
Re: Reform the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
Dear Attorney General Holder:
There is a compelling need for the Department of Justice to intervene against the longstanding and unconstitutional patterns and practices of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The Justice Department should file a civil action in order to monitor the Sheriff’s Department under a consent decree or other federal court order to eliminate the pattern and practice of abuse and corruption.
This week’s indictment by a federal grand jury of 16 deputies and 2 former deputies for excessive force and obstruction of justice in county jails clearly demonstrates that only the federal government can stop the abuse and corruption that are systemic in the Sheriff’s Department.
The people of Los Angeles cannot trust the Sheriff’s Department to reform and police itself. The Kolts Report in 1992 documented that a central focus of abuse is the Department’s jail system. The need remains to make the jails a central focus of reform. See, e.g., Special Counsel James Kolts, The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department 237-48 (1992), goo.gl/DhbcLc.
The County Board of Supervisors may argue that their recent appointment of an Inspector General will cure the problem without outside intervention. Our response is, first, that the proposal for an Inspector General languished for months before the Supervisors adopted it in a last-minute effort to avoid federal oversight. The federal government has acted as a prod to local action that was long overdue. Second, the Inspector General is required to turn any findings and recommendations over to the very Supervisors who have failed to resolve these festering issues for many years. The people of Los Angeles cannot expect the problems of abuse and corruption to be fairly and thoroughly addressed by the elected officials responsible for allowing them to grow and multiply in the first place. Finally, the new Inspector General lacks not only the enforcement powers but the staffing and funding to pursue a massive, long-entrenched crisis to a real solution.
Federal intervention once again appears to be the only path to real reform in the largest local jail system in the United States.
Congress gave the Justice Department the authority to investigate patterns and practices of police abuse by state and local law enforcement agencies and to bring lawsuits to remedy those abuses. The Justice Department should file a civil action to eliminate the pattern and practice of abuse and corruption.
Section 14141 of the U.S. Code prohibits law enforcement officers or officials from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights, privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. It gives the Justice Department the authority to intervene where local systems of police accountability have failed. The Sheriff’s Department scandal is just such a situation. If this is not a pattern and practice of police abuse, what is?
We ourselves wrote to Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee in 2000 successfully pleading for federal action during the Rampart police misconduct scandal. The Justice Department persuaded the City of Los Angeles to accept and implement a long list of reforms. That chapter of our history was a success by nearly all accounts. With that previous consent decree as a model, we urge you to help us take the next step in the history of police reform, without delay. See Tom Hayden, Paul Hoffman, and Robert García, This Case Calls for a Truly Outside Inquiry, L.A. Times, Feb. 20, 2000, goo.gl/S2tBV3.
Abuse and corruption in the Sheriff’s Department undermines any reform of the Los Angeles Police Department. People who are presumed innocent and who remain in custody after arraignment are remanded to the custody of the Sheriff’s Department if they are arrested by the LAPD. Innocent people are entitled to be free from abuse and corruption at the hands of the police and the sheriff. LAPD cannot turn a blind eye and send innocent suspects to the county jail without accepting full responsibility and accountability for the life and safety of the suspects. See LAPD web site, “Jail and Related Questions,” goo.gl/4oitz9.
The Department of Justice should secure as part of the remedy in court independent civilian oversight to oversee the Sheriff’s Department in the long term.
The federal criminal investigation is not enough to achieve reform. The criminal probe focuses on proving the culpability of individual deputies beyond a reasonable doubt. The civil action for a pattern and practice of abuse and corruption would focus on institutional reform of the Sheriff’s Department to eliminate the pattern or practice by a preponderance of the evidence.
The Justice Department can and must play a major role in ensuring that this scandal, unlike others before it, really does lead to the structural reform and continuing oversight that are essential to solve the problems of the Sheriff’s Department. See Robert García, Riots and Rebellion: Los Angeles Police Reform Time Line 1965-2012, KCET Departures, goo.gl/8zM6X.
Very truly yours,
Senator Tom Hayden (Ret.)
Director, The Peace and Justice Resource Center
Founding Director and Counsel, The City Project
Tom Hayden served in the California legislature from 1982 to 2000 as an assemblyman and senator. He is the author of Street Wars (2007).
Robert García is a civil rights attorney and former federal prosecutor, having served as Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York. With the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he sued the Sheriff’s Department in the Thomas litigation that led to the Kolts reforms.
cc: County Board of Supervisors
Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council
Steve Soboroff, President, City of Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners