Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. Photo by John Schreiber.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. Photo by John Schreiber.

Los Angeles County’s new sheriff said Tuesday “huge progress” has been made in overhauling management of the jail system, but a representative for the agency that monitors the Sheriff’s Department said it still isn’t being given access to information it needs to do its job.

Reporting to the Board of Supervisors on the status of jail-management changes for the first time since his swearing-in, Sheriff Jim McDonnell highlighted some of the accomplishments.

Since the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence made its recommendations in September 2012, there has been a marked reduction in the use of force against inmates by sheriff’s deputies, guards are being rotated to prevent cliques and a new audit and inspections unit has been set up, the sheriff told the board.

“Our jails are a very different place than they were then,” McDonnell said, citing experts’ opinions.

Critical work still underway includes more training for deputies on working with mentally ill inmates, more supervision, more body scanners for inmates and a full build-out of the department’s audit function, the sheriff said.

McDonnell called the improvement process his highest priority.

“We can get this right and I’m committed to ensuring that we do get this right,” he said.

Changes in the jail system will also be driven by the November settlement of a federal class-action suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The county agreed to overhaul the department’s use-of-force policies as part of that agreement.

The board’s two new supervisors, however, raised concerns about continued problems in the jails.

Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl said they had received calls from the families of inmates with more than one story of “very invasive” and “unnecessary” strip searches of female inmates.

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who was appointed to run the county jail system shortly after the Citizen’s Commission made its recommendations, said body scanners are available at the women’s jail and inmates there “always have a choice.”

But inmates heading to and from court for hearings — the source of at least one complaint received by Kuehl — may not have the option of scanners. Closed circuit video systems that monitor activity at the jails are just now being installed in the women’s facility, officials said.

Solis and Kuehl said they would follow up on the complaints.

The Office of Inspector General, established to monitor the Sheriff’s Department, said its oversight continued to be hindered by lack of access to confidential personnel records.

Assistant Inspector General Cathleen Beltz told the board that sheriff’s deputies had been “very responsive,” but once an investigation begins, the OIG is limited to relying on self-reporting by the Sheriff’s Department.

OIG staffers head to the scene of all deputy-involved shootings and the office is notified and granted access to the jails when there is a prisoner suicide or death, group disturbance or significant use-of-force incident.

“However, the moment an inquiry or investigation is triggered, the OIG is denied access to the information necessary to evaluate its quality. In every such instance, opportunities for real-time monitoring or any meaningful insight of the department are lost,” according to an OIG quarterly report.

County attorneys said they are working to find a solution that satisfies concerns about the confidentiality of personnel records.

City News Service

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