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FBI arrests 16 sheriff’s deputies over prison beatings

Inmates and jail visitors were attacked by police officials acting ‘above the law’

Federal officials said 18 current and former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies saw themselves as being “above the law” when they engaged in crimes that included beating inmates and jail visitors, falsifying reports and trying to obstruct an FBI probe of the nation’s largest jail system.

The investigation into corruption and civil rights abuses led to the arrests on Monday of 16 of the 18 defendants. At least two no longer work for the department. “These incidents did not take place in a vacuum. In fact, they demonstrated behaviour that had become institutionalised,” said US attorney Andre Birotte Jr. “The pattern of activity shows how some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law.” The 16 appeared in court that day. Thirteen pleaded not guilty, and three did not enter pleas.

Sheriff Lee Baca told reporters on Monday that he was troubled by the charges and called it a sad day. He said the department would continue to cooperate with the FBI and that deputies who have been charged would be relieved of duty and have their pay suspended. The Sheriff’s Department oversees jails with more than 18,700 inmates and has a history of abuse allegations dating back to the 1970s.

The criminal complaint and four grand jury indictments included allegations that deputies unlawfully detained and used force on visitors to Men’s Central Jail, including detaining and handcuffing the Austrian consul-general in one instance, and, in another, grabbing a man by the neck, forcing his head into a refrigerator, throwing him to the floor and pepper spraying his eyes.

The documents also alleged that deputies falsified reports to make arrests seem lawful or in one case struck, kicked and pepper sprayed an inmate and made false reports to have the inmate charged with assault.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has acknowledged mistakes but also distanced himself from the allegations (AP)

Deputies allegedly tried to thwart the investigation by unsuccessfully seeking a court order to get the FBI to provide documents and attempted to intimidate a lead FBI agent by claiming they were going to seek a warrant for her arrest.

Those charged include two lieutenants, one of whom oversaw the department’s safe jails program and another who investigated allegations of crimes by the Sheriff’s personnel. They are accused, along with two sergeants and three deputies, with trying to prevent the FBI from contacting an informant by falsifying records to appear he had been released when he had really been moved around cells under false names.

Mr Birotte wouldn’t say whether the officers were directed by their superiors. He declined to say if the alleged abuse was fostered by top brass. Mr Baca, who has been sheriff since 1998, is facing his toughest race yet for re-election in 2014. He has acknowledged mistakes but also distanced himself personally from allegations.

The Sheriff said he has made improvements including creating a database to track inmate complaints. He has also hired a new head of custody.

On Monday, Mr Baca said he would accept the outcome of the FBI investigation, but strongly denied criticisms that abuse was rampant. “You haven’t seen me retire from the job,” he said. “You haven’t seen me blame somebody else.”

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Sheriff’s Department in 2012 claiming the Sheriff and his top commanders had condoned violence against inmates. 

A federal jury in October found Mr Baca personally liable for $100,000 for failing to stop inmate abuse in Men’s Central Jail in a case brought by a man who said he was beaten while awaiting trial.