L.A. sheriff's department faces abuse charges

NEWS Page 3A - September 10, 1991

By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES - Law enforcement here faces a bad case of deja vu: Charges of brutality and racism, and civil rights groups clamoring for an independent investigation.

But this time, it's the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department that's under attack - not the city police.

Growing public outcry over four fatal shootings since Aug. 3 have prompted today's first-ever County Board of Supervisors hearing on Sheriff's Department operations.

"When we see the types of shootings and abuses that have taken place, citizens are beginning to wonder what type of law enforcement we have," says NAACP's Jose De Sosa.

The hearing promises to be a tumultuous affair, coming just six months after the controversial videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.

Sheriff Sherman Block will be there. So will residents with tales of harassment.

Supervisor Gloria Molina has pushed a department investigation, citing eroding confidence in law enforcement. But the likelihood of armed deputies at the hearing is scaring witnesses off, Molina spokesman Robert Alaniz says. "Obviously there are people out there who've been intimidated. It's going to be a zoo."

The hearing could pave the way for an independent inquiry like that of the Christopher Commission, which after the King beating, found rampant racism, sexism and brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department and prompted Chief Daryl Gates to plan retirement.

The Police Misconduct Lawyer Referral Service reports soaring complaints against the sheriff's department, which handles police matters outside Los Angeles' city limits: 482 through July vs. 508 in 1990.

"They range from verbal abuse to shootings to everything in between," says Director Karol Heppe. "The most common is assault and battery. The most likely victims are African-American males in their 20s. We need an investigation."

Not helping the department's case: A flurry of indictments against deputies.

Seven narcotics deputies have been sentenced on money-skimming charges. Three are charged with stealing credit cards from motorists and going on shopping sprees. And Friday, the trial of five deputies charged with using money from drug busts is set to begin.

Block could suffer from the scandals, although he's managed to build closer ties to the community than Gates.

But Connie Rice, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund says: "When you fail to stop years of abuse and you're at the helm, the buck has to stop some place."

Back to LA Sheriffs