Federal authorities announced charges Monday against 18 current and former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies accused of beating jail inmates and visitors, trying to intimidate an FBI agent and other crimes following an investigation of corruption inside the nation's largest jail system.
Prosecutors said they found a "wide scope of illegal conduct" by deputies and their supervisors that went beyond mistreating inmates to actively attempting to hinder an FBI investigation into jail misconduct.
The actions of federal authorities marked the largest mass arrest of sheriff's officials in more than two decades and represents another blow to a department that recently has been accused of racially biased policing, hiring officers with tainted backgrounds and cronyism.
MORE: Tracking claims of deputy brutality
"These incidents did not take place in a vacuum — in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized," U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. said in a statement. "Some members of the Sheriff's Department considered themselves to be above the law."
The indictments allege two assaults on inmates and three on people who visited the jail. They also include claims that deputies wrote false reports to justify using force and conducted illegal arrests and searches of jail visitors.
A sergeant who supervised deputies in the visiting area of Men's Central Jail was accused of encouraging violence and reprimanding employees "for not using force on visitors ... if the visitors had supposedly 'disrespected'" jail deputies, according to an indictment.
Read the documents
In one case, prosecutors say, an Austrian consul official trying to visit an Austrian inmate was arrested and handcuffed even though she had committed no crime and would have been immune from prosecution, the indictment said.
Sheriff Lee Baca said at a Monterey Park news conference that he respected the findings of federal authorities but was saddened by them.
"Please know that I respect the criminal justice system and no one is above the law," Baca said.
Still, he defended his agency, saying "99.9% of our employees are on the right track.... There is no institutional problem within the Sheriff's Department when it comes to correcting itself."
Baca's remarks came as his deputies were being arraigned at the federal courthouse in downtown L.A. Sixteen appeared in court, with at least some handcuffed and chained at the waist. Some pleaded not guilty. Others are expected to enter their pleas at a later date. All were released on bond, a U.S. attorney's office spokesman said. The two who did not appear are expected to surrender in the future, he said.