California attorney general launches civil rights probe of L.A. County Sheriff’s Department
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra on Friday announced he is launching a civil rights investigation into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, an agency beset by allegations of deputy misconduct, controversial shootings and resistance to oversight from Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
The investigation will probe whether the Sheriff’s Department, the largest in the country, routinely violates people’s constitutional rights. Becerra, whose office has been called on in recent months to look into an agency that watchdogs claim is shrouded in secrecy, said he was spurred to action by credible reports of excessive force by deputies, as well as retaliation and other missteps involving the department’s management.
“There are serious concerns and reports that accountability and adherence to legitimate policing practices have lapsed at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” Becerra, who likely is on his way out to join President Biden’s Cabinet, said in a statement. “We are undertaking this investigation to determine if LASD has violated the law or the rights of the people of Los Angeles County.”
To carry out the inquiry, a team of investigators is expected to interview deputies, local officials, members of oversight panels, and community groups that have been highly critical of the Sheriff’s Department and long wanted an outside authority to intervene. Becerra did not address whether the investigation would focus on specific stations and divisions of the sprawling agency or whether investigators would delve into allegations that deputies in several stations belong to gang-like cliques.
“We are not placing a particular scope and time or place, or person — this is an investigation where we look to see if the practices of the department conform with the law,” said Becerra, who is Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
The attorney general said a thorough report on the investigation’s findings would be made public and that he hoped Villanueva would work with his office to address problems. If the department refuses to cooperate, Becerra said more coercive options are available. “If it requires us to go to court to prove our case and change the practices and policies of that agency, we’ll be ready for that,” he said.
A similar investigation of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office that began in December 2016 resulted in a settlement announced last month to implement a laundry list of reforms that included changes to the agency’s policy on the use of force, a ban on the use of chokeholds and other maneuvers, a new procedure for reporting deputy shootings to the public, and stricter rules governing deputy searches.
In a statement Friday, Villanueva, who didn’t learn of Becerra’s plan until it was announced, said he welcomed the attorney general’s investigation. “Our department may finally have an impartial, objective assessment of our operations, and recommendations on any areas we can improve our service to the community,” he said. “We will provide immediate access to all information in our possession. We are eager to get this process started, in the interest of transparency and accountability.”
The announcement comes after a series of high-profile shootings and allegations of misconduct within the department that have triggered widespread protests and demands from community organizers and lawmakers for independent investigations.
Those calls were amplified after the killing in June of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, who was fatally shot five times in the back by a deputy assigned to the Compton station. That station has been roiled by allegations that a gang-like clique of tattooed deputies who call themselves the Executioners run roughshod and celebrate deputies who use force.
Calling Beccera’s investigation “a step forward in the names of people like Dijon Kizzee and Andres Guardado and so many others” killed by L.A. deputies, Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, applauded the move. “We would like to see an end to sheriff gangs, we would like to see an unveiling of the corruption of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department,” she said.
Lex Steppling, an organizer for Dignity and Power Now, which advocates for people who are incarcerated and their families, said a broad investigation into the Sheriff’s Department is long overdue.
“This kind of thing should happen all the time and should’ve happened a long time ago,” he said. “I hope this investigation is done in earnest and I also hope that they look at the same truths that we’ve been dealing with and facing our whole life.”
In September, a congressional subcommittee requested that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate allegations of systemic abuses by “criminal gangs” of L.A. County deputies who use aggressive tactics and prize violence. Records show that the county has paid out roughly $55 million in lawsuits and legal claims in which deputies have been accused of belonging to a secret clique.
Los Angeles County has become a flashpoint in the national discourse over how to reform and monitor law enforcement, a debate that took on urgency following the police killing last year of George Floyd and other abuses of Black men and women. Villanueva has clashed with the Board of Supervisors since taking office in December 2018, as the board has challenged the sheriff’s decisions to rehire deputies with histories of misconduct. More recently, Villanueva and the board have tangled over the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and budget cuts.
L.A. County coroner’s office determines that Andres Guardado, the 18-year-old killed by an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy, was shot 5 times in the back.
The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, a watchdog group appointed by the supervisors, took the unprecedented step of calling for Villanueva’s resignation last fall, saying he’s dragged his feet on critical reforms, resisted oversight of the department and failed to hold deputies accountable.
Commissioner Robert Bonner, a former federal prosecutor and former U.S. District Court judge, said he hopes the attorney general’s investigation leads to a consent decree — a binding agreement monitored by a judge — that requires the elimination of deputy cliques.
“I would hope that part of that investigation would focus on deputy cliques ... how they contribute to a culture that promotes the use of excessive and/or unnecessary force, how they also undermine the discipline and accountability that’s needed within the Sheriff’s Department,” Bonner said.
In a sign of the growing distrust between county leaders and the sheriff, the Board of Supervisors last year gave the commission authority to subpoena the department for internal records and testimony. A few months later, voters affirmed the move and Gov. Gavin Newsom followed by signing a state law that gives subpoena power to police oversight panels statewide.
When Villanueva defied a subpoena to testify about his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the jails, the county took him to court, testing the new check on his power.
Villanueva challenged the legality of the subpoena, describing it at a news conference as a “public shaming endeavor.” A judge ruled that the commission was well within its authority. However, lawyers representing L.A. County dropped the case after the sheriff showed up voluntarily to the panel’s December meeting and agreed to appear again this week.
While civilian oversight efforts have provided an outside check on policing, they have faced criticism for not having enough power to force real changes in California, where police are granted significant privacy rights and other protections.
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