L.A. County sheriff creates new office to ‘eradicate all deputy gangs’
Facing long-standing allegations of “appalling” conditions inside the county’s jails and violent deputy “gangs” operating on its streets, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna on Wednesday announced the appointment of a former federal prosecutor to oversee a new office designed to combat those problems within the department.
Eileen Decker, a high-profile attorney who previously served on the city’s Police Commission and on Luna’s transition team when he took over the department last year, will hold a chief-level role leading the Office for Constitutional Policing.
“This new office will be tasked with helping to eradicate all deputy gangs from this department,” Luna said at a midday news conference outside the Hall of Justice. “I will have an absolute zero tolerance for this type of conduct.”
The announcement signals a sharp departure from the tactics of Luna’s predecessor, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who at one point said he would eliminate the department’s constitutional policing advisors and later denied the existence of deputy “gangs.” Allegations of such groups promoting violence and running roughshod over certain stations and jails have long plagued the Sheriff’s Department, sparking multiple investigations and costing the county more than $55 million in settlements.
The new office, Luna said, could “help protect taxpayers” from such costly litigation in the future by making sure the department doesn’t run afoul of legal agreements or violate people’s rights.
“We are expecting no less than outstanding constitutional policing,” he said, “and that’s what this office is going to make sure we’re on track for.”
In addition to combating problematic deputy groups, Luna said that — unlike in the past — the new office will also work to bring the department into compliance with the many consent decrees and settlement agreements the county has failed to obey for years. Several stem from sprawling lawsuits over poor care and persistent violence meted out by staff inside the Los Angeles County jails.
“The prior constitutional policing advisors were not as engaged in the oversight of all the consent decrees, court settlement agreements that have come into play in the last few years,” Decker said. Ultimately, she said, the goal is to get the department out from the consent decrees.
“My job simply is to get the department to not fall short,” she said.
To do that, Decker and her team of investigators, lawyers and auditors will evaluate policies, practices, training and methods of accountability. Her role will not be simply advisory, officials said.
Before taking charge of the new office, Decker served as one of the three co-chairs of Luna’s transition team. Before that, she oversaw Los Angeles police as the president and later vice president of the city’s Police Commission. She also spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor, and three as the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California. She described Wednesday’s appointment as “the culmination of my life’s work.”
Sean Kennedy, who has investigated deputy groups extensively in his role as the chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, lauded the creation of the new office.
“Our past sheriffs undervalued constitutional policing to the detriment of so many struggling communities that LASD is supposed to serve,” he told The Times. “I am glad Sheriff Luna is trying to take a new path by instituting a full office of constitutional policing.”
But some observers were more circumspect. Melissa Camacho is a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who represents inmates in a pair of class-action lawsuits over jail conditions and violence. She expressed some skepticism about whether the new office could fix the problems behind bars.
“The only thing that is going to enable the Sheriff’s Department and the county to come into compliance with consent decrees is by reducing the jail population by thousands,” she said. “If this person can help do that, then I welcome it.”
The announcement comes two days after a tense hearing in federal court over deadlines in yet another major lawsuit — this one filed by the U.S. Department of Justice over concerns about persistently bad mental health care in the jails. After nearly a decade of court-imposed federal monitoring, the county has still failed to comply with the stipulations laid out in the consent decree, including providing 20 hours per week of out-of-cell time to mentally ill inmates who are otherwise left in isolation.
Of more than 5,000 mentally ill people behind bars in L.A. County, Justice Department lawyers estimated just 20% are getting the treatment they need in a timely manner. They said those who aren’t can be left to languish in solitary confinement for weeks or months, rarely getting let out of their cells and sometimes decompensating so badly they begin smearing feces.
While lawyers for the county said it would require three more years for the jails to comply fully with all the provisions of the consent decree, Justice Department lawyers urged setting tighter deadlines.
U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson cast about for other solutions, suggesting the county might sue the state or ask the Board of Supervisors for more money. At one point, he seemed to suggest the Justice Department should ask to hold the county in contempt of court for failing to fix the ongoing “crisis.” Ultimately, he held off on setting concrete deadlines, allowing the county more time to explain why it found the federal attorneys’ proposed timeline “unrealistic.”
“What I’m hearing, bluntly,” he said, “is a failure on every level.”
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