Explore the rest of our reporting on "How America Does Justice."
In July 2010, Leo Figueroa got a phone call he’ll never forget.
Leo’s younger brother, Juan, was calling from the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, saying he had been arrested. This wasn’t Juan’s first scrape with the law, but they had always been minor. So he was stunned by what Juan said next. He told Leo that the deputies charged with his protection had broken his teeth and ribs.
“I didn’t even know how to react,” Leo told America Tonight.
Leo went to the jail, and after getting what he calls “the runaround,” approached the deputy who was policing the visiting area.
“No sooner do I finish my sentence, when the deputy is reaching for me,” Leo says. “I started backing up. I said, ‘Officer?’ Then, they all attacked me.”
Leo says he ended up face down on the ground, surrounded by four or five officers.
“I’m in handcuffs and somebody smashes my face on the concrete,” Leo said. “And then I hear a crack, like celery cracking.”
His arm was severely fractured. Three and a half years later, the arm is still weak and has limited motion.
The visitors area
The jail system run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is the largest in the country. Critics say it is also one of the worst – a place where beatings and broken bones have been the preferred method of disciplining inmates and visitors alike. That culture, they claim, was condoned by the department’s brass, including the sheriff himself, Lee Baca.
“Unfortunately, the federal investigation found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum,” Andre Birotte Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, announced at a December press conference. “In fact, the examples of illegal conduct alleged in these indictments demonstrated that certain of that behavior had become institutionalized.”
According to one of the federal indictments, Sgt. Eric Gonzalez, who was a supervisor at the visiting area at the Men’s Central Jail, didn’t like it when guests “disrespected” deputies, so encouraged those under his command to “conduct unreasonable searches and seizures,” “engage in excessive force” and to “make unlawful arrests.”
Gonzalez questioned Leo Figueroa after he was injured. A video made by officers at the jail shows Gonzalez pressing Figueroa, suggesting that he was responsible for the attack and even, at one point, handling his broken arm.
“Lift your left arm, Leo,” Gonzalez says in the video. Figueroa moaned as he strained to move his disabled limb.
“There appears to be some pain to the left arm, some redness, maybe some swelling,” Gonzalez continued, as Figueroa lets out a scream.
In all, Figueroa was held for five days, although he was never officially charged with a crime.
“I didn’t do anything to provoke or assault. I didn’t spit at the officer. I didn’t kick at the officer. I didn’t do anything to the deputy sheriffs or anyone else that I was involved with,” Figueroa told America Tonight. “And they know that. The bottom line is they know that.”
A few bad apples?
It wasn’t just jailhouse visitors like Figueroa who were allegedly abused by deputies. The indictments make clear that inmates endured their own brand of harsh treatment. One of the more serious allegations is that deputies at the Men’s Central Jail organized themselves into gangs, sporting special tattoos and requiring new members to beat inmates. Reportedly, they named themselves the “2000 Boys” and “3000 Boys,” after the floors on which they worked.
Sonia Mercado, a civil rights attorney who has represented several former inmates, says one of her clients, a pretrial detainee, was brutally beaten by three deputies.
“His eyes were black and blue and shut closed for a month,” Mercado told America Tonight. “His ankle was broken, the bones were broken in four different parts.”
In a jailhouse video, sheriff’s deputies can be heard joking about the man’s injuries.
“He’s just faking it,” said one deputy.
The deputies contend that in a search of the man’s cell, he became unruly. They admitted, however, that at the time of the beating, he was unarmed, dressed only in his underwear and was being physically restrained when many of the blows were delivered.
“I think if you’re difficult in jail, you should be disciplined. But the punishment does not have to be, ‘I just get to beat you,’” Mercado says. “It’s not by breaking the bones of his ankles in four different places, that’s not punishment. That’s brutality.”
After suing the sheriff’s department and the officers involved, a jury unanimously awarded the man $125,000 in damages. Sheriff Baca, a former jailhouse captain, and the deputies involved also agreed to pay $160,000 in punitive penalties.
Mercado insists her client didn’t simply suffer at the hands of a few bad apples.
“A few bad apples who have the ratification and are condoned by their superiors are not a few bad apples,” she said.
The sheriff’s department wouldn’t comment on this case, or Figueroa’s. And Sheriff Baca’s office declined America Tonight’s request for an interview.
Capt. Daniel Dyer walked through the 3000 floor of the Men’s Central Jail, greeting inmates along the way. Dyer is the new captain of the jail, responsible for day-to-day operations.
“Nobody wants to believe that that’s actually occurred or was occurring at the time,” Dyer told America Tonight. “It’s a tough pill to swallow at times.”
Dyer says a lot of the problems at the jail stemmed from poor morale because officers viewed the jail as a temporary stop on the way to more glamorous jobs within the department. But he says most of his staff has come to realize that the job is much easier when you respect the inmates.
“You give them respect, you get the respect back. The rapport with the deputies and inmates is remarkable, it really is,” he says.
Since the allegations came out, Dyer says he’s doubled the number of supervisors in the jail, adding sergeants to every floor. He also says he’s changed the protocols regarding the use of force. He says that while the jail did have some issues in the past, the troubles were not as rampant as they were portrayed in the media.
Captain Daniel Dyer
Dyer couldn’t speak to any specific incidents, such as the allegations about the officer gangs, because of ongoing litigation. But he says it hurts to hear about it.
“It’s tainted the image of the sheriff’s department we all take pride in,” he says. “It’s a slap in the face of the entire department.”
But there are those in Los Angeles who believe the sheriff’s department can’t be trusted to clean up its own act. In 2012, a commission formed by the County Board of Supervisors found “a persistent pattern of unreasonable force…that dates back many years.” The commission concluded that they believed the issue surrounding excessive use of force in jails had been “fixed.”
“I think we’ve gotten to this place because of a certain militancy,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, “and the mentality of deputies within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who are hell-bent on corruption.”
Even the resignation of Baca hasn’t convinced Ridley-Thomas that true change is underway. He wants a dedicated inspector general and an oversight panel, providing a set of independent eyes and ears, so that the department isn’t left to police itself.
“This is not reducible to a single individual or personality,” he says. “The problems are structural. They are systemic.”
Leo Figueroa is still coping with the aftermath of his ordeal. A judge awarded him $320,000 in a civil suit. That award is being appealed. And it’s estimated that Figueroa faces another $100,000 in medical costs. Figueroa said his studies have also suffered since the incident; he’s been working towards his master's degree.
But Figueroa is happy that his story is at least getting out. He hopes the attention will push reforms, so that a stay, and even just a visit, to the L.A. County jail system is no longer a life-threatening experience.