After a court battle, the public can now see videos showing Los Angeles County jail inmates being stomped, beaten and punished with stun guns.
The videos show jailers dragging screaming and moaning inmates from their cells in August 2008. Five inmates sued, and a jury awarded a total of nearly $1 million in damages and more than $5 million in attorney fees. The jury found Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies used “sadistic and malicious force.”
Although portions of the video were played in open court in 2013, U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall agreed to seal the videos. Attorneys for the county argued that releasing the tapes would create an unfair bias against the county during an appeal. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, responding to a media request, this month ordered the videos unsealed.
Nearly a decade has passed and the sheriff’s department says it has improved procedures under new leadership. However, inmates advocates still see the release of the videos as important.
"The public needs to see what happens when we let law enforcement have its way without oversight and accountability mechanisms,” says Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California. “And I hope politicians from that time and now look at these videos so they will be aware of how the Board of Supervisors was not paying attention then, and ignoring our warnings, and so they’ll be vigilant now and in the future."
The deputies used Tasers and force to remove 20 inmates from single-man cells in Men’s Central Jail after a 2008 jailhouse protest over previous alleged beatings by deputies. Sheriff’s officials said the protesting inmates broke toilets and sinks and flooded their cells. Four teams, each typically made up of six deputies, were formed to forcibly extract each inmate over six hours.
Each time, deputies fired rubber bullets at the inmate, then threw “stingball” grenades. Stingballs use explosive force, smoke, flash and flying pellets to disorient a prisoner, allowing deputies to charge in with plastic shields that help pin inmates into the wall or ground.
In court, both sides used the videos as evidence. The county argued that the inmates were chanting, throwing things and refusing to follow orders as deputies engaged in a “calculated extraction” that followed department policy. The inmates’ attorneys showed they were stripped naked, beaten repeatedly and dragged out by their limbs. Co-counsel James Muller says the inmates reported being tasered in their private parts.
The videos show the injured inmates in bloodied uniforms being interviewed after they were brought to the infirmary. Deputies ask an inmate what happened. “I fell down,” says inmate Juan Trinidad. Another inmate, right eye swollen shut and head fully wrapped in bandages, says, “I fell off my bunk bed. The deputies came in and helped me.” Inmates later reported to their attorney Ronald Kaye that deputies threatened retaliation if they mentioned the beatings or filed complaints.
"This is the kind of stuff you imagine seeing in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq," argues Kaye.
In a statement, sheriff’s department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida says, "The inmates involved in this incident were some of the most dangerous and violent criminals housed in the high security section of our jails. The incident was caused by the violent and disruptive conduct of the inmates who were lighting fires, ripping out sinks and using the porcelain shards as weapons, and threatening to kill deputies."
Jin Choi, an attorney for L.A. County, did not respond to a request for comment.
Kaye argued in court that deputies violated policy by not attempting to negotiate with the inmates prior to the extraction. Members of the clergy were present and offered to intervene or help negotiate. Nineteen of the 20 extracted inmates were taken to the hospital, requiring surgeries, metal plates, bone re-setting and weeks of recovery.
Eliasberg of the ACLU says the violence eventually led to reforms.
"This was as bad a period in L.A. County Jails as I have ever heard of and it lasted a long time, about 2007 through 2011” he says. “But things have changed a lot since then, and a lot of pieces went into creating that change."
Eliasberg co-authored a scathing ACLU report that included eyewitness accounts by jail chaplains and a tutor. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors in late 2011 created the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, which produced its own stinging report. The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in 2012, and the federal government filed criminal charges for excessive force and obstruction of justice against some deputies, winning convictions and plea bargains. An inspector general’s office was created to oversee the sheriff’s department.
The department says procedures for cell extractions have become more detailed and may include cooling-off periods and medical and mental health experts on scene. "We seek to avoid the use of force if at all possible, holding the safety of the inmates as well as our employees as a priority," the department says in a statement.
All but two of the 19 deputies involved in the extractions remain employed at the department, which under California law can not disclose what, if any, disciplinary action was taken against them.
However, senior members of the Sheriff’s department were held accountable. Lee Baca, who was the LA County Sheriff at the time that the videos were shot, was recently sentenced to three years in prison for obstruction of an FBI Investigation of abuses in his county jails. He’s currently appealing his conviction. Former Undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, was also convicted on conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
In response to the scandals, the Board of Supervisors has since created a civilian oversight commission to more closely monitor the department. The move is meant to restore public trust; but some critics question whether the commission will have any influence. The new Sheriff, Jim McDonnell, is not legally obligated to take direction from the supervisors or the new commission.
Kaye says some of the inmates are still in jail and still fear retaliation. But the court’s verdict in their civil case provides a sense of justice for them as they live out their sentences.
See the full statement and video from L.A. County Sheriff's Department here.