LA Sheriff's Deputies Face Charges Of Inmate Abuse

Eighteen current and former Los Angeles sheriff's deputies are facing federal charges, accused of civil rights violations and obstruction of justice. The indictments are part of an ongoing FBI probe into allegations of widespread abuse against inmates at county jails.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And here in Los Angeles this morning, 18 current and former deputy sheriffs are facing federal charges. They're accused of corruption and abusing inmates being held in the largest jail system in the country.

NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Federal authorities are accusing the L.A. sheriff's deputies of a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations inside L.A. County's main downtown jails.

U.S. attorney Andre Birotte, of the Central District of California, faced a bank of TV cameras as he summed up the charges.

ANDRE BIROTTE: The charges allege a disturbing conduct that includes assaults of inmates and visitors, fictitious reports and false arrests designed to cover up civil rights abuses, and ultimately, a conspiracy to obstruct justice when the sheriff's department learned that the federal government was investigating misconduct in the jails.

SIEGLER: Here are just two examples of that disturbing conduct that's alleged to have taken place. In one indictment, a deputy accused of kicking and pepper-spraying an inmate then trained other officers how to write reports covering up the abuse. Another indictment hits squarely on the alleged excessive force toward visitors at the jails.

BIROTTE: According to the indictment, one of the victims in the case, the Austrian consul general, who, along with her husband, was unlawfully detained when they arrived at the jail to visit an Austrian national who had recently been arrested.

SIEGLER: The indictment says the Austrians were handcuffed and detained. Federal authorities go on to accuse a former sheriff's deputy of fostering an atmosphere that encouraged and tolerated abuses of the law.

BIROTTE: In fact, the examples of illegal conduct alleged in these indictments demonstrated that certain of the individuals and certain of that behavior had become institutionalized.

SIEGLER: Just a few hours after the U.S. attorney spoke, Sheriff Lee Baca took his turn in front of the microphones, flanked by a row of deputies and officials behind him.

SHERIFF LEE BACA: The allegations stand on their own face, and that's the whole purpose of the FBI's investigation, and I accept whatever their findings are.

BIROTTE: But, as he has with other recent allegations involving excessive use of force by deputies outside the jails, Baca called the problems raised in the indictments isolated incidents. L.A. has the largest sheriff's department in the U.S., with almost 10,000 deputies operating over a 4,700-square-mile piece of land with multiple jurisdictions. Until recently, the sheriff's department hadn't been under the same level of scrutiny as the once scandal-ridden LAPD.

BACA: There's no perfect law enforcement agency anywhere in the world, let alone the United States. But what I do is I tell the truth. I accept responsibility, and I also believe in correcting things and getting proactive.

SIEGLER: Civil rights leaders have been calling on Baca to step down since abuse allegations like yesterday's surfaced more than two years ago. Peter Eliasberg is legal director for the ACLU of Southern California.

PETER ELIASBERG: It's an extraordinary re-affirmation of the kinds of problems and illegal behavior that the ACLU and the Jail Commission and others have pointed to in the sheriff's department.

SIEGLER: Eliasberg predicts that indictments of higher-ranking officials could still be coming. The U.S. attorney and the FBI assistant director in charge of the investigation say the federal government's inquiry will continue. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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