Sheriff Vicki Hennessy (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

SF sheriff investigates new allegations of deputies beating inmates

San Francisco’s sheriff has launched internal investigations into new allegations from Public Defender Jeff Adachi accusing deputies of beating inmates and forcing them to undergo questionable strip searches.

Fifteen inmates accused deputies of committing a range of physical assaults and abuses in late 2018, from shoving them to the ground and kicking them to forcing them to pull down their pants and lie on the cold ground.

Around the same time, 16 female inmates also reported being subjected to strip searches that some described as humiliating, with the women often saying they were forced to undress in view of male deputies.

“These were extremely alarming,” Adachi said Tuesday. “Not only because they involved serious allegations of abuse but also the fact that a number of incidents were reported at about the same time, most of them having occurred in October and November and involving the same deputies.”

Sheriff Vicki Hennessy immediately directed Internal Affairs to investigate the allegations when she learned of the claims from Adachi and “internal sources” on Dec. 2, she said in a Jan. 31 letter to the public defender.

The sheriff said she has since “made some personnel moves” and assigned additional supervisors “to ensure the integrity of this investigation.”

“I take these allegations seriously,” Hennessy said. “I have taken steps to ensure a thorough investigation and fair treatment of complainants and witnesses. Our department will not prejudge the outcome of this investigation until we have concluded our examination and review of facts.”

Ken Lomba, president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, seemed to question the validity of the allegations in a statement.

“We assume this is typical Jeff Adachi campaign grandstanding, but obviously we will cooperate fully with any investigation,” Lomba said.

Critics say there is reason to doubt the integrity of the internal probes.

Prosecutors dismissed charges against three deputies accused of forcing inmates to fight like gladiators on Feb. 1 after defense attorneys showed that the Sheriff’s Department mishandled the investigation.

Among the revelations were that investigators smashed a hard drive that may have contained information benefiting the defendants. The department also improperly built the criminal case using a compelled statement that Internal Affairs took from one of the deputies.

Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin, who represented three of the inmates alleging misconduct, said the internal mechanisms within the department for enforcing misconduct “are clearly not working.”

“Our concern is with making sure that the people who are enforcing the law are also held accountable,” said Boudin, who is a candidate in the district attorney race. “I’m concerned that the Sheriff’s Department is unable and unwilling to do that given their destruction of evidence in the fight club case.”

The tossed charges have prompted Boudin, alongside Adachi and Supervisor Shamann Walton, to press for additional oversight of the department from an outside agency like the Department of Police Accountability, which oversees allegations of police misconduct.

“It is not an attack on the Sheriff’s Department,” said Walton, who called for a hearing on the issue Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors. “But it is about the reality that in order to conduct thorough investigations against the Sheriff’s Department, a body without conflict is required.”

But Nancy Crowley, a spokesperson for the sheriff, said Hennessy is “committed to collaboration and transparency, which can be achieved without an expensive new bureaucracy.”

“She has addressed any errors that may have occurred during the jail fights criminal investigation, which began before she took office,” Crowley said.

Crowley said Hennessy separated the Criminal and Internal Affairs units of the department when she first took office. That was after investigators had already wrongly used the compelled statements in the jail fights case.

Crowley said there has only been one related complaint filed with the department since Adachi raised the allegations in early December.

The investigations into the latest allegations are ongoing.

The Public Defender’s Office detailed the allegations in a report that included some names of inmates but often only partial names of deputies.

The San Francisco Examiner decided not to publish the names of the accusers as they may be victims and could not immediately verify the names of the deputies.

Most of the beating and abuse allegations are said to have happened at County Jail No. 5 in San Bruno, which has sixteen pods that each hold 48 inmates.

Among the allegations are that deputies made two San Bruno inmates pull their pants down to their ankles and get down on the ground beneath their beds on Nov. 27.

In another incident Nov. 16, a 26-year-old inmate said about a dozen deputies knocked him to the ground and took turns kicking him at the San Bruno jail. He was bruised on his face and wrists.

In an incident at the Hall of Justice, deputies allegedly beat an inmate three times on Sept. 17 and held up his chin in his booking photo because he could not hold up his head.

He was taken to the hospital while bleeding from the ear.

As for the search allegations, numerous female inmates who mostly declined to be identified reported being forced to undress while male deputies were in the area.

In one case, an unidentified woman said she could see a male deputy outside the crack in the bathroom door while a female deputy strip searched her. In another, male deputies who normally searched cells while female deputies performed cavity searches were in the area.

“Strip searches are allowed in jail but they have to be done in a reasonable way, particularly when it comes to female prisoners having other male deputies present or in a position where they are able to observe a female being strip searched should not occur,” Adachi said.

Sheriff’s Department policy requires all deputies present at a strip search to be the same gender identity as the inmate except in an emergency.

Hennessy said in the letter that she is reviewing “inmate living area search policies to ensure best practices.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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