Malibu City Council Supports LASD Release Policy Changes
• Mitrice Richardson Tragedy Provided Impetus for Concern about Lost Hills Sheriff's Station Protocol
BY ANNE SOBLE
Despite a three-plus-hour wait for the item to go before the Malibu City Council Monday evening, supporters of municipal Public Safety Commission recommendations for changes in Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detainee release policies got what they wanted—a strong unanimous endorsement of change.
A majority of the municipal Public Safety Commission asked the city council, which has no immediate authority over the LASD that provides contract law enforcement services to the city, to "request that the sheriff's department consider a change in policy to have local stations allow detainees to be released only between sunrise to sunset unless proper transportation has been secured."
PSC members also recommended that "all arrestees be permitted to retain possession" of their wallet, cell phone or other personal possessions that would help to assure their personal safety after release. Currently, determination on booking these items as bulk property or individual articles is subject to the discretion of the arresting deputy, and there have been numerous examples of detainees, especially females, being required to leave belongings that are not already on their person in an impounded vehicle.
The council gave both proposals a green light, emphasizing their gender neutral status and expressing special concern about the relative isolation of the Lost Hills Sheriff's Station, while acknowledging that any changes in release policies would have be applicable to all stations in the county.
The five council members approved action to send a letter to Sheriff Lee Baca to urge consideration of the proposed changes and also to indicate that one or more of them want to arrange a meeting with Baca to address these issues in person.
Mayor John Sibert emphasized the advisory nature of the council action, stating, "We do not have the authority to tell them how to do their business." The LASD provides contract law enforcement basis for the city and, although the city has no direct power over the agency, it is a client with an annual tab of $6.5 million. Many also think the community's high media profile might mean that its opinions warrant agency attention.
Although the council looked at the issue from a broader perspective—something that many of the proponents reiterated, one of the driving forces for the proposal was the community's widespread concern for the fate of Mitrice Richardson, a 24-year-old Los Angeles resident who was booked at Lost Hills on two field-citable misdemeanors two years ago, and released at minutes past midnight without her wallet, money or cell phone. She was found dead in remote Malibu Canyon backcountry located seven miles from the station eleven months later.
Psychologist Ronda Hampton, Richardson's college mentor and friend, stressed the global nature of the issue of safe release and said common sense should prevail when applying the Lost Hill manual's directives on release policies and that would not allow the release of individuals "without the means to care for themselves."
Linda Vallejo of Monte Nido, who has been a longtime supporter of the effort to learn what happened to Richardson, told council members that "the Malibu City Council should be the squeaky wheel, which gets [the LASD] to change its release policy."
Lisa Santamaria, who has been an important part of the friends-and-family effort on Richardson's behalf since she first went missing in 2009, relayed the specifics of several other cases of the release of individuals who were incoherent or did not have access to belongings in impounded vehicles.
She also noted that the station still does not have a separate payphone located in the lobby where people can make private phone calls that are not monitored by desk personnel at Lost Hills.
Council members expressed optimism that Lost Hills Station Commander Captain Joe Stephen acknowledged their concerns. Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich said, "[I am] sure Capt. Stephen will work with us."
Lou La Monte spoke to Stephen directly, "We have to give you a strong recommendation. We know you want to get the right thing done."
Stephen commented on concern about telephone access, "There is no phone issue at the Malibu station." He said there are two phones on the LHSS front desk; but he did not indicate if anyone can just walk up and use them, whether long distance as well as local calls can be made—a concern with some phones used in holding cells, and he did not state whether calls on those phones are recorded.
Stephen also reiterated statements he made at the August Public Safety Commission meeting, saying the station has been responsive to Office of Independent Review 2010 recommendations for Lost Hills policy changes. "We allow arrestees now to keep cell phones," he said, and noted the station now records all incoming calls inquiring about or for inmates, and "[when people are released now, they are] shown a list of these calls and have to sign off on them."
The Lost Hills commander indicated that there is no budget for camera monitoring of exterior perimeters of the station, as was also recommended by OIR, but said more will be done in the future when funding permits.
Stephen made an interesting departure from what LASD has been stating regarding who determines whether a detainee is perceived to be unable to assure their own safety or might be a danger to others, making them subject to a "5150," or involuntary hold, and held for medical evaluation.
The captain said, "At Lost Hills, the jailer makes that determination," shifting the spotlight back on the role played by Sheron Cummings, the jailer, or custody assistant, who booked Richardson.
LASD spokesperson Steve Whitmore, speaking at a rally in October 2009 outside Lost Hills Station, said, "African-American jailer [Cummings] said she engaged [Richardson who was African-American] in 'lucid' conversation...at great length." Whitmore indicated that the jailer said they "talked about music."
However, according to family members who viewed a booking cage video of Richardson, she looked dazed, distraught, and appeared unable to operate a telephone.
Cummings has declined to be interviewed by the Malibu Surfside News, or allow a personnel file photo or other photograph of her to be made public by the sheriff's department.
The only quote by Cummings used in a lone off-camera broadcast interview was similar to the paraphrasing offered by Whitmore at the Lost Hills rally. Cummings said, "When I found out [Richardson] didn't have a ride, I asked her why don't you stay [in a locked cell]. It's kind of dark and a bit cool, you don't have a jacket. I knew she lived out in L.A. and didn't know the area. But she said she didn't want to spend the night in jail, and she was hooking up with some friends."
Unconfirmed reports are circulating that Cummings may not have stood by that quote when she was deposed by the attorneys representing Richardson's parents in litigation against Los Angeles County.
When the settlements proposed in those lawsuits are finalized, it is believed there may be media access to all of the depositions taken during the discovery process.