Deputies have gotten the message about limiting the use of force in handling jail inmates, with the most severe sort of injuries “virtually non-existent,” according to a report Tuesday by custody officials, who acknowledged that challenges remain in working with mentally ill inmates.
Assistant Sheriff Kelly Harrington gave an update to the Board of Supervisors on the department’s compliance with policy changes approved in December 2015 as part of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which had sued the county based on concerns about suicides and excessive force in the jails.
Inmates see the change from “the old days,” Harrington told the board.
Those old days included groups of deputies beating up on inmates and violent assaults that ended in broken bones, severe injuries and millions of dollars in legal damages paid out by the county.
The department assigns use of force incidents to one of three categories: Category 1: non-injury, Category 2: identifiable injuries not serious enough to warrant an investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau, and Category 3: injuries serious enough to spark an IAB review.
From April 2017 to March 2018, there have been just two Category 3 cases at Men’s Central Jail, Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the Inmate Reception Center, though three other incidents sparked a unit-level administrative review. Those three jail facilities are the only ones monitored under the settlement agreement reached in Rosas, et al. v. Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
In response to a question by the board, Harrington said anyone skeptical about the department-generated data should remember that “there’s so much monitoring that’s going on in the jails,” from video cameras to the Office of Inspector General to independent, court-ordered monitors. “It’s not just taking the word of the sheriff’s department.”
Inspector General Max Huntsman backed up the department’s report.
IAB-level injuries, “particularly broken bones, is something that we’re not seeing anymore in the jails,” Huntsman said. “A well-operating jail system doesn’t need to use that kind of force almost regardless of what inmates do.”
Harrington pointed to “more of a service-type atmosphere” in the jails “instead of a strict security atmosphere,” based on improved medical care, mental health care and educational resources that give inmates hope.
A major challenge continues to be adequately training deputies to work with a growing number of mentally ill inmates, who make up 20 percent of the jail population, based on conservative estimates.
“It’s difficult because of the rise of the mental health population in the jails,” Harrington said. “That’s where most of our use of forces are occurring. And that’s because of medical management, the unstable environment that we receive those individuals in.”
The year-over-year data on Category 1 and 2 incidents is mixed, though both are declining.
Non-injury use of force includes both incidents where inmates complain of pain but have no evidence of injury, and situations Harrington called “wiggle force,” where inmates resist a search or being handcuffed so that some control is applied by the deputy, but there is no complaint of any pain. The latter category has been broken out separately since October 2017, based on discussions with jail monitors.
Incident totals of both those categories are down nearly 28 percent from 2016-17 to 2017-18.
However, Category 2 situations — that end with some injury to an inmate — are down only 5 percent.
Huntsman raised separate concerns about the inmate grievance process, which he called “broken,” pointing to complaints about staff or medical care — the kind that rank highest — that were improperly denied or never processed.
Part of the problem is data management, according to the inspector general, who said improving those systems will be critical to the county’s compliance with other jail mandates.