LA sheriff agrees to oversight of jails to settle abuse suit

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The nation's largest sheriff's department agreed to federal court oversight and will adopt a new use-of-force policy to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by jail inmates who said they were beaten by guards.

The agreement, in effect a consent decree, was approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. It is the latest in several efforts to reform the scandal-plagued department beset with allegations of rampant abuse by deputies, costly lawsuits and federal convictions of deputies for obstructing an FBI probe into jail beatings.

Three court-appointed monitors will oversee the department and a federal judge can intervene if the sheriff fails to enforce the new policy or train officers, according to a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit.

"If the sheriff is not living up to the terms of the agreement, we have the tools that the federal court provides," said Peter Eliasberg of the ACLU of Southern California.

The settlement provides no monetary damages and the department didn't admit any wrongdoing.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was sworn in earlier this month, said in a statement that he fully supports the settlement.

"This solidifies many of the reforms already underway by the department. I welcome the opportunity to work together with the designated experts, the court and others to implement these changes."

The lawsuit was brought by the ACLU in January 2012 as the FBI investigated claims of excessive use of force and Sheriff Lee Baca weathered increasing criticism for being out of touch with his department, which runs the county jail and also provides policing in unincorporated parts of the county and some suburbs.

Baca stepped down in January after 18 underlings were charged with federal crimes ranging from beating inmates and jail visitors to obstructing justice.

The suit filed on behalf of two men awaiting trial, Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin, claimed they were among dozens of inmates savagely beaten by guards, many of whom were said to be in gangs formed within the department. The suit alleged that extreme and unjustified violence by deputies was pervasive.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell, elected in November on promises to reform the department, is no stranger to the problems.

The former Long Beach police chief was a member of the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence that issued a scathing report about Baca's leadership failures and a "persistent pattern of unnecessary and excessive force."

The panel recommended some changes underway, though the temporary commission had no authority or ability to monitor conditions at the jail.

Since McDonnell's swearing in, the settlement is the second layer of oversight added to his department.

Supervisors voted last week to create a civilian commission to oversee the department.

McDonnell welcomed the idea of the panel as a way to put problems in the past. He said Tuesday it was critical for cooperation between the department and the Board of Supervisors to commit necessary resources to improve the jails.

Use of force is one of two issues the federal courts will likely watch in Los Angeles jails.

U.S. Department of Justice officials are moving forward with a federal consent decree to address mental health care problems in the jails following a rash of suicides.


Tami Abdollah can be reached at .

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