S.F. deputies' inmate beatings lawsuit goes to trial

San Francisco Sheriff’s Department deputies allegedly beat inmates they were guarding at the County Jail, breaking one prisoner’s nose and another’s back, according to two federal civil-rights lawsuits filed in 2005.

The lawsuits will go to trial this summer after lawyers failed to come to a resolution at a hearing Friday, plaintiff’s attorney Scot Candell said Tuesday. Allegations of a “pattern and practice” of excessive force were dismissed earlier this year, but civil lawsuits by four inmates remain against eight individual deputies.

The lawsuits were originally filed in 2005, after plaintiffs felt their complaints against deputies were being ignored, Candell said Tuesday.

Unlike the San Francisco Police Department, there is no independent civilian office that investigates citizens’ complaints against the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. Originally, the two lawsuits asked the federal Ninth District court to order The City to create a body such as the Office of Citizens’ Complaints to deal with the Sheriff’s Department.

Because the allegations of wide-ranging abuse were thrown out, the court will have no authority over city policy, but Candell said he hopes the individual lawsuits will garner enough attention to spur lawmakers into the creation of such a body.

The alleged abuses violated the inmates’ rights to liberty, he said.

“These are all people who are pre-trial detainees, which means they haven’t been convicted of anything yet. If they had the money, they’d post bail. They have a right to be safe. It’s the job of the deputies and the job of The City to keep them safe and to protect them,” Candell said.

But because the allegations of wide-ranging abuse were dropped from the lawsuit, City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s spokesman Matt Dorsey said a potentially major case had been “all but gutted.”

“The lion’s share of those claims were dismissed,” Dorsey said. “There are four remaining plaintiffs with allegations against individual deputies, but we remain very confident of The City’s legal position.” He said the allegations were meritless.

The remaining claims allege deputies, including a 13-year veteran, engaged in excessively violent uses of force. One claim, by plaintiff Mack Woodfox, alleges that the veteran punched him and beat his head against the ground after Woodfox did not want to take the breakfast brought to him.

In another case, a plaintiff alleges he was hog-tied, kicked and beaten after asking for an extension cord to watch television. The victim lost consciousness, and suffered a broken back and internal bleeding, according to the complaint.

Sheriff Department’s spokeswoman Eileen Hirst said inmates have ample opportunities to file complaints with the department’s Internal Affairs Division, which investigates allegations of misconduct. They can file complaints by telephone, mail or in person through a member of the department’s staff.

“We try to make it as easy as possible for people to contact ISU,” Hirst said.

amartin@examiner.com


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