California opens civil rights investigation of Riverside County Sheriff’s Office
California’s attorney general has opened a civil rights investigation of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office amid allegations of excessive force against detainees and inhumane jail conditions.
“We all benefit when there is action to ensure the integrity of policing in our state,” Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said. “It is time for us to shine a light on the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office and its practices.”
Bonta said he was troubled by reports that sheriff’s deputies were using excessive force and by Riverside County’s high rate of deaths in custody. “Too many families and communities in Riverside are hurting and looking for answers,” he said.
State investigators will try to determine whether the Sheriff’s Office has shown a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing. The attorney general’s office has been conducting a similar investigation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the largest in the nation, since January 2021.
Last year, Bonta said, Riverside County jails “reported their deadliest year in two decades.”
“That’s just one data point and it’s unacceptable,” he told reporters at his office in downtown Los Angeles.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco released a video statement dismissing Bonta’s announcement as a political stunt.
“This investigation is based on nothing but false and misleading statements and straight-out lies from activists, including their attorneys,” he said. “This will prove to be a complete waste of time and resources.”
He added: “We have absolutely nothing to hide, and we’ll be more than cooperative and accommodating with this investigation.”
The ACLU of Southern California and a coalition of community organizations urged Bonta in a September 2021 letter to investigate the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office for alleged “racist policing practices, rampant patrol and jail deaths” and other suspected misconduct.
“We have lost loved ones to unbelievable violence at the hands of sheriff’s deputies and have seen our community members suffer from undeniably inhumane jail conditions,” they wrote.
The groups pointed in the letter to what they claimed was a culture of “secrecy, violence and disrespect for the lives of incarcerated people” among Riverside deputies.
Detainees have been denied soap, regular showers, clean clothes and face masks for protection against the coronavirus, the groups told Bonta.
They also raised concerns about fatal shootings by Riverside County deputies. From 2013 to 2021, deputies killed 55 people, one of the state’s highest rates of killings by police per arrest, they said.
Riverside County sheriff was once a member of an extremist group with ties to the Jan. 6 insurrection
Sheriff Chad Bianco acknowledged he was a member of the Oath Keepers in 2014 but left after finding “the group did not offer me anything.”
Bonta, a former Democratic state lawmaker who was named attorney general by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021 and elected to his first full term in November, has made investigating police misconduct a priority, saying public trust in law enforcement enhances safety.
In December, Bonta launched an investigation of the Torrance Police Department after The Times revealed more than a dozen officers had sent racist text messages for years and joked about violence against suspects.
Last month, he opened another civil rights investigation of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, citing alleged beatings of jail detainees.
If state investigators confirm the suspected pattern of unlawful or unconstitutional wrongdoing by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office, Bonta could get court-ordered remedies to correct it.
Bonta said he was disturbed by the high rate of deputies firing their guns in Riverside County, as well as by the number of people dying in custody, with a disparate effect on Black and Latino suspects and detainees.
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