LASD Says it Wants to Keep Hitting People in the Head

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

This story was originally published by The Appeal.

For years, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has alleged that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies have needlessly hit incarcerated people in the head with impunity. According to LASD, its deputies hit prisoners in the head at least 52 times last year—meaning deputies punched about one person in the head per week.

The ACLU, which is taking the sheriff’s department to federal court over the matter, says that number is inexcusable. But in federal court yesterday, the sheriff’s department argued it has already made significant changes and should not be forced to change its head strike policy.

“The facts don’t support the modifications [the ACLU is] asking for,” LASD attorney Robert Dugdale said, noting that those 52 head strikes constituted a marked decrease from years prior. “The LASD’s head strike policy is as restrictive as any policy out there.”

The hearing was the latest development in a decade-old lawsuit against the sheriff’s department. In 2012, the ACLU sued LASD for routinely using excessive force against people incarcerated in Los Angeles County jails. In 2015, a judge approved a settlement agreement requiring LASD to reform its use-of-force-related policies and practices.

On May 31 of this year, the ACLU filed a motion arguing that the LASD has failed to comply with key provisions of the plan. The ACLU asked the court to prohibit the use of head strikes by LASD deputies (except in rare instances when deadly force is authorized), limit the use of a restraint device known as the WRAP, and impose mandatory discipline on LASD employees who use excessive force or lie on use-of-force reports.

Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California, said during the hearing that LASD had repeatedly failed to comply with the settlement. As such, he said, the plan ought to be modified in order to prevent deputies from continuing to use dangerous and unnecessary force.

“Over eight years, the court has never once found the LASD to be in compliance with the head strike provisions of the plan,” Eliasberg said.

Last week, the ACLU and Los Angeles County reached a settlement agreement in a different lawsuit over conditions in the jail system’s Inmate Reception Center (IRC). On June 22, a federal judge approved a settlementwhich will require the county to create 1,925 new community beds as alternatives to incarcerating people with mental illnesses. The county also must improve conditions at the IRC as part of this settlement, and provide quarterly reports on its progress.

During yesterday’s separate hearing, LASD’s Dugdale said that the department currently allows deputies to hit people in the head when “an inmate is assaultive,” the deputy faces imminent threat of “serious bodily injury,” and there is no other way the deputy can avoid serious injury. Dugdale also said the department is now tracking head strikes at each facility.

The ACLU argued that the LASD has repeatedly failed to meet its own standard when it comes to head strikes: In a sworn declaration submitted on behalf of the ACLU, Stephen Sinclair, a former Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, said he reviewed nine incidents in which deputies used head strikes. In eight of the nine incidents, Sinclair said, “it was obvious to me that the use of head strikes was unnecessary and excessive force” under the LASD’s own head strike policy.

Another expert witness for the ACLU, emergency room physician Dr. Shamsher Samra, worked in the county’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility for three years. Samra said in a sworn statement that punches or strikes to the head “can, and frequently do result in severe, and potentially, fatal injuries,” including traumatic brain injuries, fractured facial bones, and retinal detachment. As of March, about half of the 14,000 people incarcerated in Los Angeles county jails were being held pretrial, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime. About 6,000 people—or 41 percent of the jail’s total population—were mentally ill.

Three independent court-appointed monitors also echoed the ACLU’s concerns over deputies’ use of head strikes during the hearing yesterday. The monitors pointed out that many institutions simply do not allow head strikes at all.

U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson yesterday asked LASD about a video the ACLU shared on June 2, which showed a deputy slamming a handcuffed man’s head into a concrete wall. The man was walking past the deputy and did not appear to do anything to provoke the deputy’s attack. A photo of the man taken afterwards shows a large gash in his head and blood all over his face and clothes.

Pregerson asked LASD’s Dugdale if the video showed what the department would consider a “head strike.” Dugdale said no, because a head strike is when a deputy uses their hands to hit someone in the head and does not include occasions when a deputy hits someone’s head on an object Dugdale reiterated that “things have improved dramatically in the jails over the past two years.”

Of the 52 head strikes LASD deputies committed last year, Dugdale said “12 of those were referred to administrative investigation. Eight of those investigations are complete and deputies were found to have acted outside of policy and disciplined.”

But when asked how those deputies were disciplined, Dugdale said they were either given ten days off work or a written reprimand.

“This only proves our point,” Eliasberg said during the proceedings. “The LASD’s own disciplinary policies say that when someone is found to use excessive force, people should be disciplined with a 15-day suspension or termination. A written reprimand is not sufficient.”

In addition to wanting LASD deputies to stop hitting so many people in the head, the ACLU asked Judge Pregerson to regulate LASD’s use of a rapid-restraint called the WRAP. The device consists of ankle straps, leg straps that circle the calves and thighs like a straight jacket, and a harness that goes around the chest and shoulders and is clipped to the leg restraints. The tool’s name is spelled in capital letters and is not an acronym.

LASD began using the WRAP after the 2015 settlement agreement occurred. As such, the ACLU argued yesterday that the court should take action to ensure that deputies are not using the restraint to commit excessive force. The WRAP device was used in cases that led to wrongful death lawsuits—and multimillion dollar settlements—across California, including in Alameda County and San Diego County.

Dugdale also stated that Sheriff Robert Luna “should be given a chance to run the department the way he feels it needs to be run” and said that Luna has already created a policy stating that the WRAP device can only be used for up to two hours.

Dugdale further said that Luna is instituting “dramatic changes” including setting up an “independent force review unit” that will consist of eight sergeants. (From Dugdale’s explanation, it was unclear how the unit would be “independent” while consisting solely of LASD personnel). The attorney also said the sheriff’s department is rolling out bodyworn cameras for jail staff by the end of this year.

Ultimately, Judge Pregerson chose not to rule on the matter yesterday. Instead, he asked LASD and the ACLU to work together to reach an agreement and come back in 60 days with proposals. Pregerson said he would reserve judgment until the next hearing, which is set for August 28.

Pregerson said LASD’s proposed changes sounded good, but cautioned that “it’s all just talk at this point” and “the devil is in the details.”

“My history in dealing with the sheriff’s department over the years has, in some cases, been a lot of promises that have evaporated,” said Pregerson.

The Appeal is a nonprofit newsroom that exposes how the U.S. criminal legal system fails to keep people safe and perpetuates harm.

Meg O’Connor is an award-winning Senior Reporter for The Appeal. She also runs their weekly newsletter. Meg covers police, prosecutors, and the criminal legal system. She previously worked for the Phoenix New Times and the Miami New Times, where her work drew national scrutiny to local police departments and led to the firing of five officers who had committed egregious misconduct. On two occasions, her reporting has caused some of the biggest police departments in the country to change internal policies.