LOS ANGELES — A civil rights group launched a scathing attack against Los Angeles County's longtime sheriff Wednesday, demanding his resignation and claiming his sprawling jail system fosters a culture of fear, deputy brutality and corruption.
Sherriff Lee Baca, whose deputies oversee about 15,000 inmates in the nation's busiest jail system, said he welcomed any criticism but disputed the claims made by the American Civil Liberties Union and said he had no intention of stepping down.
The ACLU called a news conference to demand the four-term sheriff's resignation, saying he and his top commanders are willfully indifferent to claims made by inmates and civilian jail visitors that deputies routinely viciously assault inmates.
In one case, an inmate at the downtown Men's Central Jail said deputies accused him of stealing mail then punched him, breaking an eye socket, and put him in a cell with two gang members.
Deputies repeatedly ignored the man's cries for help as the gang members raped him while another inmate flushed his head down a toilet to muffle his screams, the man, who had been jailed for making criminal threats, said in a sworn declaration.
It is "a jail system and a sheriff's department running a jail system through corruption, through intimidation, through unchecked violence and negligent, perhaps even nonexistent, supervision and management," said Tom Parker, a former FBI special agent in charge who conducted an investigation of the jails for the ACLU. "I have never seen anything that approaches the patterns of violence, misfeasance and malfeasance that particularly infects the Los Angeles County jail system."
Such intense criticism is unusual for Baca, a mild-mannered lawman who publicly espouses compassionate treatment of criminals and educational opportunities for inmates. The 69-year-old ran unopposed in last year's election and has held the office for 13 years.
Baca called the ACLU's statements "hyperbole" designed at winning a quick headline. He said his department takes seriously all allegations of deputy misconduct and noted that deputies who had been shown to use excessive force were frequently dismissed.
"It's easy to accuse deputies of being brutal, it's easy to make mass comments about how everything is running rampant in the jail system," Baca said. "When (inmates) do get violent with my staff or they get violent with each other, who is responsible for ending the violence?"
He added that deputies often try to talk to violent inmates but, "at some point, you have to take physical action."
The ACLU, a court-appointed monitor of jail conditions, called for Baca's resignation while releasing a 22-page report that referenced 70 sworn statements, including affidavits by two chaplains and a Hollywood producer who volunteer at the Men's Central Jail.
"Sheriff Baca bears ultimate responsibility for the horrific details we uncovered compiling this report and must step down," ACLU of Southern California's legal director Peter Eliasberg said.
The report was filed in court as part of an ongoing monitoring process by the ACLU. Eliasberg said the organization was considering future legal action against the sheriff's department.
The ACLU said it received thousands of brutality complaints in the past year.
"I have never seen anything to match the institutional culture of deputy savagery," Margaret Winter of the ACLU's National Prison Project told a news conference.
"Hangover" producer Scott Budnick, a former jail writing tutor, chaplain Paulino Juarez and another chaplain who submitted a statement anonymously said in the ACLU report that deputies brutalize inmates, and sheriff's supervisors don't take beating reports seriously.
Juarez said he was ministering to a Men's Central Jail inmate on Feb. 11, 2009, when he saw three deputies beating an apparently handcuffed inmate who was pleading for them to stop.
The name of the man who said in the report that he was raped was withheld because The Associated Press does not typically name alleged victims of sex crimes.
Michael Gennaco, who heads the County Office of Independent Review oversight body at the sheriff's department, said the ACLU was overreaching in its claims and noted that his office routinely investigates complaints of jailhouse beatings and appropriate action is taken when necessary.
Eliasberg said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder should order criminal and civil rights investigations into "deputy-on-inmate assaults, deputy-instigated inmate-on-inmate assaults and the regular use of excessive force inside the jail."
The FBI has been investigating deputy conduct at county jails, partly in response to claims put forward by the ACLU.
On Tuesday, Baca met with U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte to discuss an FBI undercover sting in which a deputy allegedly accepted a $1,500 bribe to get a cell phone to an inmate who was an FBI informant.
ACLU lawyers said an institutional problem inherent in the jails is that the facilities are staffed by young deputies on their first assignment with the department. The ACLU argued that putting hotheaded and sometimes bored young men who'd rather be patrolling the streets in the confines of a violent jail could help foster resentment against inmates.
"Gang-like groups of deputies have been operating in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department at least since the 1980s, and perhaps since the early 1970s, and these deputy gangs continue to operate today seemingly with impunity, right under the eyes of all levels of the current management," wrote Parker, the former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office.
Associated Press writer Jeff Wilson contributed to this report.
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___Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com