Five days after it was revealed that the FBI was investigating reports of widespread violence inflicted on Los Angeles County inmates by county sheriff personnel serving as jailers, the ACLU of Southern California released a report alleging that a widespread culture of violence permeated the department from top to bottom. Giving that report additional punch — aside from the 70 cases cited — was that its author, Santa Barbara resident Tom Parker, was a former FBI agent.
Parker had been hired by the bureau in 1970, back when J. Edgar Hoover still ran the show. Parker would retire in 1994. In between, he worked directly under Judge William H. Webster, who led the bureau after Hoover died. More importantly, Parker led the FBI’s investigation of the Rodney King beating at the hands of LAPD officers in 1990, and that department’s infamous Rampart Division scandal, where some cops acted more like gangsters than the gangsters they were allegedly combating.
Parker, now approaching age 68, said the intensity of violence inflicted on L.A. County Jail inmates by guards is far worse than the beating visited upon Rodney King and far more systemic than the violence perpetrated during the darkest days of the Rampart Division. “I worked in law enforcement for 30 years. I’ve been in 40 jails and prisons all around the world,” he said. “In all these jails, I’ve never seen the volume and severity of beatings that I’ve seen at the L.A. County Jail and the absolute abdication of any meaningful supervision.” Parker said he was not given access to jail prisoners or even the jail itself. Nor did he meet with Sheriff Lee Baca. But he interviewed scores of ex-prisoners. He spoke with chaplains and teachers who’d worked with prisoners there, as well as medical personnel. He discovered a startling degree of consistency to the allegations even though many of the people making them have never seen each other.
Assigned to a badly overcrowded and all but unmanageable jail complex, Parker said, were young deputies with no street experience and dangerously little training in how to deal with a volatile inmate population. They learned the ropes from older, more experienced deputies, some of whom formed their own guard gangs with their own tattoos and hand signals. Random violence, he said, was the rule, with little or no provocation necessary to trigger a brutal outburst. And if the deputies didn’t administer the beatings themselves, Parker reported, they’d intentionally place vulnerable prisoners with especially violent inmates, knowing they’d be beaten, raped, or both.
In the past, reports of such violence had been rebutted with outright denials: Inmates can’t be relied on to tell the truth; such complaints are duly investigated and found, in most instances, to be without merit. To the contrary, Parker concluded that in most instances, there are no inquiries when inmates report such assaults. Likewise, he found when such claims were looked into, the investigations often tortured the facts beyond recognition. Furthermore, he found there was no system of oversight holding errant deputies accountable. Initially, Baca dismissed the ACLU report as “hyperbole.” But as investigative reporters with the L.A. Times have pursued the story — along with the FBI — Baca has been forced to admit his jails are beset by serious problems and that his administrators have not always kept him adequately informed.
Parker acknowledged how it might seem incongruous that someone so professionally steeped in law enforcement worked with the ACLU. “I’ve always been more liberal than my colleagues in the bureau,” he said. Parker said he’s always been a proponent of human rights, but when he married a pioneering Russian feminist, that interest was heightened. During his tenure with the FBI, Parker frequently found himself investigating “malfeasance and misfeasance” of law enforcement agencies. After retiring, Parker worked as a white-collar security consultant. But he also worked as an expert witness, usually testifying on behalf of those claiming to have been victims of police brutality.
Four years ago, he moved to Santa Barbara, his marriage to the Russian feminist over. For two years, Parker served on the city’s Fire and Police Commission, one of the weakest of all the city’s many boards and commissions. From the outset, Parker made it clear he expected the commission to be consulted on budgetary and policy matters. He grew impatient when he was not provided information in what he deemed a timely manner. He and Chief Cam Sanchez did not get along. They sparred verbally in public meetings.
Pretty soon, Parker became seen as a magnet for activists who had a bone to pick with the chief. If Parker did not necessarily embrace their cause, he would at least make sure their questions got asked. Parker stepped down two years into his term to work as an investigator for defense attorney Bob Sanger, defending, then as now, Corey Lyons, who stands accused of shooting his brother and his brother’s life partner to death. Much of Lyons’s defense has been that the police badly botched the murder investigation. With that work over — Lyons is now being tried a third time after a mistrial and hung jury — Parker is now applying to be reappointed back to the Fire and Police Commission.
Given his past with the chief and his reputation as a departmental critic, Parker faces an uphill climb, and another candidate, John Toller, is vying for the same spot. Parker is not fazed. He acknowledged that what he does has not always been popular. “But the best way to preserve public trust in law enforcement,” he said, “is to make sure that law enforcement is held accountable.”