The allegations were serious: A group of Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies escorted an inmate to a secluded spot in Men's Central Jail, beat him, pulled down his boxers and pepper-sprayed his anus and groin.

The Sheriff's Department waited to launch an internal affairs investigation until the Los Angeles County district attorney's office decided whether it was going to press criminal charges. After almost three years, prosecutors decided not to.

That decision opened the door to the internal affairs investigation, which is still going on. Since the incident, two of the accused deputies continue to be paid.

For the cash-strapped department, that means shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for employees who weren't working.

For years, the department had waited until criminal investigations into its employees were completed before launching the internal reviews to determine whether misconduct occurred.

In an attempt to avoid such long delays in internal investigations, top Sheriff's Department officials recently changed course and decided to allow their own inquiries to begin immediately.

"There were significant investigations that were being delayed two, three years because the district attorney's office wasn't doing anything," said department spokesman Steve Whitmore. Sheriff Lee Baca "wanted to make sure that practice stopped."

That delay in action, officials said, could be particularly problematic after contentious deputy-involved shootings.

Michael Gennaco, who heads the Office of Independent Review, a department watchdog, said the delays left Sheriff's Department officials "hamstrung."

"It's a change in the culture of the department," he said. "There's a new recognition that what the department does about its employees' administrative pace should not necessarily be dictated by" the district attorney.

Despite the fact that the department is facing a $128-million budget cut, Whitmore said, the change is not about cost-saving but about transparency.

"The public would get frustrated with the delay," he said.

"The sheriff wants to be more accountable."

Gennaco said the practice of waiting came from a 1991 settlement with the deputies' union that stipulated that internal affairs reviews be done after criminal adjudication.

"They have decided it is time for an agreement that was made almost 20 years ago to end," Gennaco said.

A representative for the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs declined to comment, but Gennaco said the deputies' union is taking legal action to block the change in practice.