Who's Right About Jail Violence: LA Sheriff Villanueva Or The Watchdogs?

The Men's Central Jail is seen in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 10, 2006. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva this week opened up an explosive debate about his deputies' ability to use force against the estimated 18,000 jail inmates under his care. He argued that reforms designed to limit that force are a failed "social experiment" because violence is on the rise at the jails.

The reforms began after a 2011 FBI investigation found widespread use of excessive force by deputies - especially against mentally ill inmates. That investigation led to the convictions of former Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff, who tried to cover up the beatings.

Watchdogs fired back, warning Villanueva against rolling back the reforms, which include more restrictions on the use of force against inmates (including a ban on deputies' use of heavy metal flashlights, which were sometimes used to beat inmates); improved de-escalation training for deputies; and a mandate to report and document each instance when force is used.

Villanueva has been particularly upset about what he sees as a sharp jump in inmate attacks on guards. So far, he hasn't indicated how he intends to address the overall issue of violence in the jails.

Here are three things you need to know about this controversy:

Before 2013, deputy violence in L.A. County jails was rampant

An independent blue ribbon panel in 2012 issued a scathing report, saying there had been a "persistent pattern of unreasonable force" by sheriff's deputies against inmates - especially at Men's Central Jail downtown. The report said the problem "dates back many years" and blamed Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff.

"Both Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff [Paul] Tanaka have, in different ways, enabled or failed to remediate overly aggressive deputy behavior as well as lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct," the report said. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors created the panel after the FBI launched an investigation into deputy-on-inmate violence. The county ended up paying out tens of millions of dollars to inmates because deputies broke bones, dislodged eye sockets and left them with permanent mental impairment because of the beatings.

The statistics on jail violence from before 2015 are at best unreliable

The sheriff cited what seem like pretty disturbing statistics on jail violence.

He said from 2013 to 2018:

  • Inmate attacks on deputies rose 204 percent, to 544
  • Inmate-on-inmate assaults rose 31 percent, to 3,632
  • Significant use of force against inmates increased 99 percent, to 349

But record-keeping was poor prior to 2015, said Richard Drooyan, the court-appointed federal jails monitor. That was when the sheriff's department struck separate agreements with the U.S. Justice Department and the ACLU on reducing jail violence and improving mental health care in the lockups.

For years before then, deputies working in the jails often didn't report incidents of violence. It's only in the last two years that the department has been able to provide accurate numbers, said Drooyan.

"I'm not sure you can compare [the recent data] to data from earlier years because the earlier-year data was not complete and accurate," he told LAist.

Dooyan's most recent reports concluded that the department needs to further reduce violence against mentally ill inmates but that incidents of deputies using significant force against inmates have decreased.

Activists are extremely worried that Villanueva will reverse the reforms

When Villanueva said policy changes in the jails "backfired" and led to increased violence, independent watchdogs became immediately alarmed.

"It's really scary to me that the sheriff is harkening back to some earlier day as being preferable to what we have now," said ACLU Attorney Peter Eliasberg. "In fact, the [ACLU and U.S. Justice Department agreements] have led to huge improvements in the situation in the jail."

In the years leading up to the federal investigation, Attorney Ron Kaye received dozens of calls and letters from people inside county jails or their families asking for help filing a lawsuit against the department.

"People were describing that they would be walking in darker portions of the jail and getting their heads thrown into the wall. If they filed a complaint, they would be subject to the flashlights," Kaye said. Those types of phone calls and letters have "reduced dramatically," he said.