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LA Sheriff's Department Agrees To Federal Oversight To Settle Abuse Suit

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A special court-appointed panel has been granted power over the Los Angeles County prison system. A federal court told that panel to reform a decades-old culture of violence against inmates. The court was responding to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: I could spend this entire story listing off all the lawsuits, the federal investigations and exhaustive citizen commission reports about corruption and violence in LA County jails. There are the grisly details of inmate beatings by gang-like cliques of sheriff's officers while higher-ups look the other way. Then you have the indictments handed down by the U.S. attorney here that recently led to criminal convictions against top sheriff's deputies. The federal government accused them of encouraging the violence. In one case, a deputy beat and pepper sprayed an inmate and then taught other lower-level officers how to write a report covering up the abuse.

But now, after all this, there are signs that some of these problems are being addressed. Yesterday, a settlement was approved in a federal class-action lawsuit against the sheriff's department brought by the ACLU. The group, along with an independent commission on jail violence, had accused former Sheriff Lee Baca of condoning violence in the Men's Central Jail.

PETER ELIASBERG: It really is a landmark. This is a - the largest jail system in the country. It is also one that has had a long history of problems with deputies using unreasonable force and excessive force in the jails.

SIEGLER: Peter Eliasberg has been involved in the negotiations from the start. He's legal director for the ACLU of Southern California.

ELIASBERG: I think the fact that there are a number of ongoing federal investigations on that problem speak to the truth of that. But we are optimistic that the department can and will move beyond that.

SIEGLER: The settlement is expected to bring about more training programs for officers and a more robust system for investigating excessive force and disciplining officers.

ELIASBERG: We think it will further a lot of the progress that the department has already made since the darkest days of 2010, 2011.

SIEGLER: Both the ACLU and the sheriff's department report that the number of violent incidents has dropped precipitously since then. The newly elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell campaigned on a platform of transparency. In a statement to NPR, McDonnell praised the settlement, saying it will help solidify many of the reforms already under way. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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