The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, already stung by reports of widespread brutality in its jails, faced troubling new allegations this week, with a senior jail officer under investigation for allegedly sabotaging an internal probe of a deputy accused of working with a heroin-dealing white supremacist gang.
The allegations against Lt. Greg Thompson, head of the county's jailhouse intelligence unit, were first detailed this week by the Los Angeles Times. According to a confidential memo obtained by the Times, an informant told two county investigators that a jail deputy was acting as a messenger and courier for the leader of a violent skinhead gang at the Men's Central Jail.
In February 2012, the investigators detailed the informant's charges in a report to Thompson, who then allegedly discussed the matter directly with the implicated deputy. The deputy was told the identity of the informant and the names of the two officers responsible for the investigative report, sources told the Times.
Steve Whitmore, chief spokesman for the sheriff's department, confirmed that the deputy, whose identity has not been disclosed publicly, is the target of an ongoing criminal investigation, and that Thompson faces an internal affairs probe into his alleged actions. Thompson has not been relieved of duty, but has been moved out of the intelligence unit. He could not be reached for comment.
"The criminal investigation is in its final stages," Whitmore told The Huffington Post.
Experts said that if the allegations are true, Thompson's actions likely thwarted the investigation into the activities of the jail deputy and put the informant's life at risk. While all the facts about Thompson's role in the incident are not yet known, his senior role in at the jail suggested that the disclosures were not accidental, said Thomas Parker, a former special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office.
"This is way outside the norm of how this should have been handled," said Parker, who is acting as an expert witness in an unrelated civil rights lawsuit alleging brutal treatment of inmates in the county jail. "It smacks of corruption."
If done deliberately, Thompson's disclosures to the deputy constituted a criminal offense, Parker said.
The apparent outing of the informant and subversion of the investigation of the deputy is reminiscent of how law enforcement operates in the developing world, according to Dennis Kenney, a professor of criminology at John Jay College in New York.
"I do a lot of work in Mexico, and that's precisely the kind of thing you see happen there," Kenney said. "What this does is it calls into question the integrity of the chain of command."
Whitmore said department policy prevented him from sharing any details about the investigation. But he said any speculation that Thompson's alleged actions were part of a broader culture of impunity and corruption within the department were unfounded.
"There's nothing clandestine here. There's nothing that's being covered up," he said. "All the appropriate actions were taken."
The allegations against Thompson come just as a separate, year-long investigation by an independent commission into reports of widespread brutality in the L.A. county jails is nearing its conclusion.
The citizen's commission was appointed by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors after a report last year by the ACLU detailed dozens of incidents of brutality in the jail system and a culture of impunity within the sheriff's department. The sheriff's department has faced recurring scandals and allegations of brutality, racial bias and corruption going back more than 30 years.
Sheriff Lee Baca testified before the commission in late July, acknowledging some missteps but describing the allegations of brutality as largely unfounded.
"I know we screwed up in the past," Baca said. "I'm a guy that says, let's go forward."
Baca also pointed to data showing a significant drop in recorded use-of-force incidents in the county jails as proof that the department had instituted real reforms in response to the ACLU complaints.
But some critics of the department say far more substantial reforms are necessary.
"There appears to be a problem with the culture inside the jail," said Martin Horn, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections, who testified at a hearing on the jail system earlier this month. "It's a culture that sees the inmates as demons. It values loyalty within the uniformed force over loyalty to a higher code."
Thomas, the former FBI agent, said the most recent allegations against Thompson clearly fit a pattern of lawlessness long entrenched within parts of the sheriff's department.
"It fits right in with the pattern of things we've seen over the past 20 or 30 years," Thomas said.
"There's no question that in many of the sectors of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department there is a culture of corruption," he said. "It's been there for decades. And there really are no significant signs that its going away."