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Sheriff Alex Villanueva to testify on gang-like deputy groups

A man in uniform stands in front of an American flag and a California flag.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva is scheduled to testify, under oath, about gang-like groups of deputies that operate in the Sheriff’s Department.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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Sheriff Alex Villanueva is scheduled to testify, under oath, Friday about gang-like groups of deputies that operate in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, after the 2nd District Court of Appeal denied his latest challenge to a more than year-old watchdog subpoena.

“He’s been ordered to do so,” Villanueva’s attorney Linda Savitt said Wednesday. “He will do so.”

The development is a major blow to Villanueva, who has been challenging the inspector general’s subpoena authority, both in court and by not showing up when he’s summoned. He has called the subpoenas politically motivated and harassing.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom gave the right to subpoena to oversight bodies statewide when he signed Assembly Bill 1185 into law in September 2020.

Max Huntsman, the inspector general appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, issued the subpoena in February of last year.

At the time, Huntsman said Villanueva made comments he found to be “somewhat unclear” about efforts to root out the cliques and enforce a new policy banning any deputy groups that violate people’s rights. The groups, which have monikers such as the Banditos and the Executioners, have been accused of using violent and aggressive policing tactics and celebrating deputy shootings.

The sheriff voluntarily appeared in September to answer questions, but Huntsman cut the interview short when Villanueva refused to give his answers under oath.

The county then took him to court, which resulted in a Superior Court judge this month ordering Villanueva to comply by testifying under oath within 21 days.

Villanueva issued a statement saying he planned to appeal the ruling.

“These subpoenas are political theater and, if successful, I will be the first elected official subjected to this heavy-handed abuse of power,” he said.

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His challenge was denied.

Huntsman said the examination would be done in private by Chief Deputy Inspector General Dara Williams, a former gang prosecutor with the district attorney’s office. He said non-confidential portions of the transcripts would eventually be released, but he did not know when.

“For now it’s part of an investigative process, so it won’t be immediately public,” Huntsman said.

He said the interview is part of a broader investigation into law enforcement gangs, which are prohibited under a new state law. The law defines police gangs as a group of peace officers who may identify themselves by a name and may be associated with an identifying symbol, like matching tattoos, and “who engage in a pattern of on-duty behavior that intentionally violates the law.”

Eventually, Huntsman said, he will turn his findings over to the State of California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which has the authority to decertify police officers who are found to be members of a law enforcement gang.

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