South LA town hall focuses on excessive force in Sheriff’s Department

Audience listens to ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg, who detailed accounts of use of excessive force in L.A. county jails.

About 40 people showed up at a South LA town hall meeting on Thursday night to discuss the use of excessive force within Los Angeles Sheriff Department. The purpose of the event, held at the Imperial Church of Christ and organized by the Citizen Advisory Board (CAB), was also to introduce the community to a new task force made up of the department’s top brass currently dedicated to addressing the issue.

The first speaker of the evening, civil rights attorney Bradley C. Gaged, who described several cases of excessive force and abuse by law enforcement, questioned the efficacy of the unit.

“I don’t see how a task force can be of any use, because top management already knows about it,” said Gaged, referring to complaints against officers for excessive force. “The code of silence among officers is still strong…. There needs to be a strengthening of whistleblower laws.”

He also pointed out that among his biggest concerns was the fact that the majority of the cases of excessive force by law enforcement have involved African Americans victims.

Assistant Sheriff Cecil W. Rhambo, Jr. addresses the crowd as CAB chair, Dr. Sandra Moore, listens.

Attorney Michael Gennaco, from the Office of Independent Review, was quick to acknowledge that there have been many problems in the handling of inmates by Sheriff’s deputies and that conditions in the jails have been deplorable. But he said that thanks to external advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), many needed reforms have been implemented, such as reducing the number of inmates per cell from six to four and seeking to improve access to medical care within a facility.

Gennaco also said that every year, the Sheriff’s department fires half a dozen deputies for use of excessive force in jails.

That may not be enough, if you listen to the account of ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg, who worked on a 2011 report detailing abuses in L.A. County jails. “Civilian eyewitnesses told us they weren’t afraid of the inmates, but of the deputies.”

Assistant Sheriff Cecil W. Rhambo, Jr. defended his department saying: “We don’t supervise perfect people. We’re aware there are problems out there, but we’ve implemented a lot of measures to improve [our department], including town halls like this one.

Nine people from the Sheriff’s department were in attendance, including a cameraman, who recorded the meeting.

Cynthia Salomon wants to know how long it takes for an independent review process to be completed.

The audience was given the opportunity to ask questions after the speakers finished their presentations. Among the concerns: race as a factor in the use of excessive force by law enforcement.

“If I ever had a problem, I’d be scared to call for help,” says Cynthia Salomon, an African American special education teacher’s assistant. Salomon went to the town hall to get some answers about the process of independent review of cases in which excessive force was used. She says both her children were arrested in March of 2011 during a street altercation, after which two LAPD detectives fired 17 shots, injuring her 21 year-old daughter in the leg. Both are currently in jail. “I’m worried for her. She has a lump on her breast and needs medical attention, but she still hasn’t been seen by a doctor.”

Salomon’s concern over access to medical care in jails was just one of many from the crowd – and an issue which the CAB is monitoring. Dr. Sandra Moore, Chair of CAB, a faith-based community advocate group, will soon be releasing its report of the Women’s Facility in Lynwood and make recommendations on how to effectively change the current prison culture that contributes to deputy misconduct, abuses and negligence.