Evelin Fischer, an Austrian consul, went to the Men's Central Jail on June 6, 2011, to pay a visit to an Austrian citizen who had been arrested. It was a routine diplomatic errand, and she brought her husband along.
While he was standing outside the visitor center, he walked a little too close to the entrance. According to an indictment unsealed on Monday, Deputy Sussie Ayala confronted him and then placed him in handcuffs.
When Fischer protested to a supervisor, she, too, was handcuffed. According to the indictment, Ayala and Deputy Noel Womack took her to a break room and searched her, though she was not suspected of a crime and should have been protected by diplomatic immunity.
As the jail scandal has unfolded over the past two years, it's become commonplace to talk about the culture of violence within the Sheriff's Department. The Citizens Commission on Jail Violence hammered on that theme in its report last year.
But many of the offenses outlined in the series of indictments unsealed on Monday do not fit neatly into that category. While some of the cases do involve allegations of extreme brutality, others involve misconduct of a different nature. We might call it asshole behavior.
What do we mean by “asshole”? Aaron James, a professor of philosophy at UC Irvine, has taken the trouble to answer that question with some rigor.
In his book, “Assholes: A Theory,” James defines an asshole as someone who “systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”
Among his examples are people who cut in line, swerve in traffic or routinely interrupt conversations. The definition could as well apply to deputies who decide to handcuff and search a consular officer because her husband stood too close to a door.
This is not an isolated incident. The same culture is on display when two sergeants — allegedly — go to the home of an FBI agent and threaten to arrest her because she won't return their phone calls. It's not violent behavior; it's asshole behavior.
And in the eyes of the federal government, the Sheriff's Department's asshole culture is so out of hand that it has become a criminal matter.
The incident with the Austrian consul only came to light on Monday, when the U.S. Attorney's Office unsealed charges against Womack and Ayala for violating the Fischers' civil rights.
Womack and Ayala have yet to give their side of the story. Womack's attorney, Matt Lombard, declined to comment on Tuesday, saying he was still gathering information about the case. Ayala's attorney, Patrick Smith, said that his client's involvement is “very limited.”
“The allegation is pretty much that she was there,” he said.
The Fischer incident is shocking if true. But that sort of behavior is not out of the norm in the jails.
In a 2011 court declaration, a jail chaplain alleged that after the chaplains would made their rounds and were ready to leave the facility, deputies routinely kept them locked inside for extended periods. He reported that on one occasion in July 2011, Chaplain Julio Gonzalez was kept locked in a module for more than 25 minutes, and was yelling to be let out. When the deputy in charge was notified, he looked up briefly and went back to reading his newspaper.
In testimony to the CCJV last year, retired Commander Bob Olmsted said that the chaplains complained to him that they had been locked in for up to an hour. That, again, is not violent, and it's not criminal. It's just being an asshole.
What makes the Fischer incident shocking, then, is not that jail deputies are capable of behaving like assholes.
It's that they treated a consular officer the way they treat everyone else.