In 1994, Lisa Simpson — daughter of Homer, sister of Bart — posed the question that continues to plague law enforcement: “If you’re the police, who will police the police?”
Homer answered, “I dunno; Coast Guard?”
Amidst allegations of deputy-on-inmate abuse at LA County jails, LA County Sheriff Lee Baca’s answer was inexplicably worse than Homer’s: “We police ourselves.”
There’s a basic structural problem here that Baca doesn’t see. Without an external and independent body overseeing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, how can people be sure that it handles deputy misconduct properly? They can’t. They simply have to trust the sheriff.
Of course, Baca can and does point to the Office of Independent Review (OIR), the civilian oversight group that reviews the investigations into the use of force that the Sheriff’s Department is supposed to conduct. But despite its name, the OIR doesn’t conduct an independent review. The quality of its investigation is dependent on the original Sheriff’s Department investigations into use of force.
Those original investigations are flawed at best. A recent OIR report too often found that the Sheriff’s Department investigations are “lackluster, sometimes slanted, and insufficiently thorough.” It also noted that when deputies misrepresent their own actions or those of inmates, they can “get away” with abuse of inmates. Its preliminary review of our jails report suggested that more deputies are abusing inmates and getting away with it.
Because the OIR just reviews the Sheriff’s Department’s investigations, it can’t improve on the original. Garbage in, garbage out.
The OIR didn’t talk to Gordon Grbavac, who was brutally assaulted by deputies and forced to say on camera that he caused his own injuries.
And the OIR never interviewed volunteer jails tutor Scott Budnick, who saw so many disturbing incidents of deputy-on-inmate abuse that he stopped volunteering at Men’s Central Jail. He reported the abuse, but the Sheriff’s Department never interviewed him. Because the Sheriff’s Department never interviewed Mr. Budnick, the OIR likely never even knew he was a witness to abuse.
Mr. Budnick’s case isn’t special — to our knowledge the OIR has never questioned anyone the Sheriff’s Department had omitted from its investigation.
Rather than reassure the public, Baca actually highlighted the lack of accountability. In light of our reportand extensive media coverage of the jails abuses, it’s clear that the jails need drastically improved oversight. Angelenos deserve far better than “We police ourselves.” We deserve to know that someone is assessing Sheriff’s Department policy, training, leadership, supervision. We deserve to have someone police the police.