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Sheriff’s Department investigates memo alleging captain wouldn’t promote ‘angry Black’ sergeant

The entrance to the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station.
(Los Angeles Times)
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The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has launched an investigation into a memo claiming that the captain overseeing the troubled East L.A. station allegedly schemed to give valued detective bureau positions to Latinos to avoid promoting an “angry Black” sergeant.

According to several pages of the January memo reviewed by The Times, Capt. Pilar Chavez also said the Black sergeant in question — Sgt. Reginald Hoffman — had “nothing coming to him” at the station ever since he’d testified to an oversight committee about the existence of deputy gangs within the department.

The allegations echo concerns Hoffman raised months earlier when he sued the county, saying that for years he’d been denied promotions and subjected to racial discrimination and whistle-blower retaliation by both Latino gang members and the leaders who tolerate them at the East L.A. station.

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That station — more than almost any other in the county — has become a magnet for scandal, in part because it is home to a group of deputies known as the Banditos, whose members have been implicated in lawsuits, shootings, investigations and one brawl at an off-duty station party where two deputies were knocked unconscious.

When he recently learned of the memo, Hoffman said he was upset.

“I was hurt about the fact that I’m not given the right to have the same career as a Latino deputy or sergeant because of how I was born — because I was born Black,” he told The Times last week. “I don’t get it, honestly.”

The memo shows that Lt. Shawn O’Donnell wrote to Cmdr. Richard Mejia, a higher-ranking official who oversees several stations, to raise concerns about Chavez’s behavior, particularly what he described as racist incidents that happened last summer.

The department has faced allegations of anti-Black racism in the past, including in several ongoing lawsuits from Black employees. And the former sheriff, Alex Villanueva, sparked criticism last year when he apparently implied there had been too many Black division chiefs, calling it “nepotism” that he said ended when he took office.

“I promoted more black and Latino chiefs and above than all previous sheriff COMBINED,” he wrote in an email this week, adding that his comments about nepotism were intended as a reflection on the promotion process as a whole and not specifically in regards to Black employees.

As of late 2020, county data showed 7.5% of the department’s sworn staff were Black and more than 52% were Latino — which was roughly in line with the demographics of the county as a whole.

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Officials with the current administration declined to comment on the contents of the January memo but broadly confirmed an ongoing probe.

“The department is conducting an administrative investigation involving a member of the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station,” said Jason Skeen, chief of staff for Sheriff Robert Luna. “The Sheriff’s Department is committed to holding employees accountable for their actions and expects them to exhibit the highest moral and ethical standards.”

To Sean Kennedy, chair of the Civilian Oversight Commission, the fact that the department does not appear to have taken action on concerns raised in January seems to belie that commitment.

“It’s been three months since the LASD leadership learned that Capt. Chavez allegedly was using racial tropes, fixing promotions, and retaliating against an employee for testifying about deputy gangs at the East L.A. station,” he said. “The slow pace of the internal investigation doesn’t inspire confidence that real reform is in the works.”

O’Donnell did not respond to requests for comment. An attorney representing him said O’Donnell is preparing to sue for an unrelated claim of political retaliation.

Meanwhile, Mejia would only confirm that a January message sent to him had sparked a Policy of Equity investigation that he said was still in its “early phases.” The memo is dated Jan. 24.

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“In late August 2022, I received a phone call from Captain Chavez on my personal cellular phone,” the memo begins. “Captain Chavez asked me if I heard about the drama going on at the station.”

O’Donnell said that he hadn’t.

According to the memo, Chavez went on to tell him that higher-ups had ordered her to interview sergeants for a position in the detective bureau. But Chavez allegedly said that was “bull——” because she wanted to pick her own sergeants — and she had two people in mind.

Neither one was Hoffman.

“Captain Chavez also told me Sergeant Reginald Hoffman was the anonymous caller who gave testimony at the Civilian Oversight Committee hearing on May 24, 2022,” the memo says. “Captain Chavez said Sergeant Hoffman had nothing coming to him at East Los Angeles station.”

Then, she allegedly said that she’d already come up with the interview questions she planned to ask and had relayed them to her preferred candidates.

“Captain Chavez stated they were Hispanic and they were the ones she could trust out of the sergeants who wanted the position,” the memo says. “She also told me there was no way she was going to allow Sergeant Hoffman to get the position because he was an angry Black guy who filed a claim and for being the anonymous caller at the COC hearing.”

Chavez, who is still the captain of the East Los Angeles station, could not be reached for comment. But in the end, Hoffman did not get the job.

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Yet, according to the memo, a couple weeks later, Chavez reached out to O’Donnell again.

“On Sept 8, 2022, Captain Chavez called me to discuss a way to transfer Sergeant Hoffman out of East Los Angeles,” the memo reads. “I asked her why she wanted him removed from the station. Captain Chavez told me he is a pain in her ass and he was acting like an angry Black. She asked me to look into transferring him out of the station.”

But O’Donnell did not investigate the possibility of a transfer, according to the memo, because he did “not believe moving someone out of a station because they were perceived as an angry Black was a legitimate reason to move someone.”

Ultimately, Hoffman was never transferred, and a few weeks after the alleged events described in the memo, he sued.

Filed in state court, the lawsuit alleges that racism has “long permeated the culture in LASD” in general, and that at East L.A. in particular, the Banditos have created a hostile work environment for employees who are not Latino.

The suit also accuses Mejia — the commander listed as the recipient of the January memo — of being a longtime supporter of “racist deputy gangs.”

It was Mejia, Hoffman’s suit alleges, who refused to consider Hoffman for a detective bureau position back in 2020, not long after the sergeant had opened up to internal affairs about the Banditos and their alleged mistreatment of a white deputy.

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Afterward, Hoffman said he felt intensifying hostility, and suspected that sometimes Mejia tried to provoke him just so that he could accuse him of being an “angry Black man.”

The lawsuit does not indicate that Mejia ever actually made that accusation.

The suit goes on to outline several other allegations, then details Hoffman’s failed attempt to get the 2022 detective bureau position described in the January memo. By then, Hoffman believed he was “next in line” to be a detective sergeant.

“However, Commander Mejia and Captain Chavez rigged a kangaroo interview process to make it seem that it would be a fair interview process,” the suit alleges. “Plaintiff applied to the position along with a Caucasian male sergeant with a long history as a detective in Operation Safe Street.”

A Latino candidate got the job in the end, the suit says.

When lawyers for the county filed a response to the suit in January, they said that the problems Hoffman described were hearsay or “unrelated to his protected status as an African American” and “not pervasive or severe as pleaded.”

They also said he hadn’t shown any clear link between his comments to internal affairs and the fact that he was later passed over for a promotion.

Though the memo apparently backs up some of the claims in the lawsuit, it raises more questions than it answers. In total, the memo appears to be eight pages, though The Times was able to review only the first three.

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And the conversations it describes allegedly took place in the fall, so it’s not clear why the message was not written until several months later. It’s also not clear when the investigation into it began.

“I don’t know the exact date that the investigation was initiated, but it happened within the time [since] the memo was received,” Mejia told The Times. “It doesn’t mean it was the date that I personally received the memo.”

Meanwhile Robert Glassman — the attorney representing O’Donnell — said his client may have penned the memo after he was denied a promotion himself and began preparing to sue the county.

O’Donnell, who is no longer at East LA, was a staunch supporter of the former sheriff and had been scheduled for a transfer around the time Villanueva left office. But according to his lawyer, O’Donnell’s transfer was called off after Luna took office.

“It’s a clear-cut case of political retaliation,” Glassman said.

A spokeperson said Friday that the department is “aware of the allegation and initiated an inquiry on his behalf.”

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