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Sheriff’s Department killing more misconduct investigations under Villanueva, report finds

Sheriff’s Department killing more misconduct investigations under Villanueva, report finds
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has talked about being unfairly disciplined as a deputy, has said he believes his predecessor opened too many administrative investigations of employees. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Officials working under Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva have been inactivating internal investigations of department personnel at a high rate, with most of the cancellations not conforming with department policies, according to a report issued Friday by the Sheriff’s Department’s chief watchdog.

A handful of the 45 investigations inactivated from Jan. 1 through Feb. 28 involve criminal allegations such as child abuse, domestic violence and having sexual relations with an inmate, according to the report by Rodrigo A. Castro-Silva, the interim leader of the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General. Most of the other cases involve allegations of policy violations such as sleeping on duty and using derogatory language.

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The inspector general also noted that other changes to employee discipline have been made in recent months, including cases in which the department moved to fire deputies for misconduct — including brandishing a weapon while intoxicated and fraternizing with a member of a criminal street gang — before entering into settlements that allowed the deputies to keep their jobs and serve days of suspension instead.

Villanueva, who has talked openly about being wrongfully disciplined as a deputy, has focused much of his public efforts on making sure deputies are treated fairly. He has said in recent statements to the county Board of Supervisors that he believes his predecessor, Jim McDonnell, opened too many administrative investigations against employees, the report noted.

The report sparked condemnation Friday from some members of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, with one member calling it “jaw-dropping.”

“To have such a large number of inactivations is — literally — to cover the public’s eyes on these matters before the truth comes out. It is the exact opposite of transparency,” Commissioner Hernán Vera, a business litigator, wrote in an email.

Castro-Silva wrote that, in early February, his office “observed a sharp increase” in inactivated administrative investigations in the Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff’s officials told the inspector general’s staff that there was a department directive in mid-December that instructed chiefs, directors and captains to “reevaluate all open administrative investigations to determine whether any of them should be inactivated.”

The inspector general found that the number of cases that were made inactive in January and February was considerably higher than in the fourth quarter of 2018, when only 10 investigations were inactivated, according to the report. Most of the cases involve sworn officers at the rank of deputy, while a handful pertain to custody assistants and civilian employees.

The Sheriff’s Department, in a response appended to the report, did not dispute any of the inspector general’s findings but said the report provided a “superficial snapshot” of cases.

“The current administration is steadfast in ensuring a fair and balanced disciplinary process for its sworn and civilian employees. Accordingly, as it relates to administrative investigations, as new information arises that mandates a different course of action be taken, it is the duty of the department executives to respond in a manner that is in the best interest of both the employee and the department,” the response said.

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Capt. Darren Harris said he had no comment beyond what was already provided in the department’s official response to the report.

The inspector general’s office, which has access to internal Sheriff’s Department files, generated the report in response to the Board of Supervisors’ motion March 12 asking for information about outcomes and dispositions on disciplinary actions by the department.

Department policy allows a “decision-maker” such as a chief or division director, under limited circumstances, to send a memo to the captain of the Internal Affairs Bureau requesting that a case be inactivated and detailing the reasons for the change, according to the report. Once a case is inactivated, the investigation stops and no findings are made.

A case may be canceled if the subject of the investigation leaves the department, if a complainant withdraws a complaint or refuses to cooperate, or if a complainant’s allegations, even if found to be true, would not constitute a violation of law or policy, the report says.

But the inspector general found that 31 of the 45 inactivated investigations did not meet any of those criteria and were closed without officials providing a detailed explanation, such as noting the emergence of new evidence. In some cases, policy violations were reclassified as “training issues.”

In one instance, a criminal case alleging cruel and unusual punishment was filed against several employees after a naked inmate suspected of secreting narcotics was tethered to a wall for a long period of time. The report says that after after the criminal case was dismissed, a chief requested that the Internal Affairs Bureau launch an investigation into potential policy violations related to tying inmates to fixed objects.

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The chief was replaced, and in January, the case was canceled after “a review of the case and circumstances,” according to the report. The report says that the inactivation memo does not include further details and that it is unclear whether any investigation took place.

In another case, a supervisor discovered drawers containing more than 200 inmate requests or grievances that were about a year old and had not been addressed. A sergeant who had previously been disciplined for misconduct involving inmate care was identified as being possibly responsible for some of the buried complaints, but the investigation into him was inactivated after a chief determined no policy violation had occurred. It was unclear what evidence led to the chief’s decision, the report said.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who has publicly criticized Villanueva over his decision to reinstate a deputy who was fired for violating policies regarding domestic violence and dishonesty, said the report renews her concern about the department’s commitment to public safety.

“I didn’t think I could be further shocked by the actions of the sheriff,” Kuehl said. “The things some of these deputies were investigated for were criminal, so to simply terminate an investigation is very troubling.”

Priscilla Ocen, a Loyola Law School professor and member of the oversight commission, said she believes the department is disregarding due process by stopping administrative investigations before they’re finished.

“An investigation is due process. Development of the facts and evidence is due process,” she said. “What Villanueva is doing is denying due process to communities when there are allegations of Sheriff’s Department misconduct.”

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The department also made disciplinary modifications to 21 cases in which there were findings of wrongdoing.

In October, the department moved to discharge a deputy for driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15% and brandishing a firearm while intoxicated. After a Skelly hearing — a pre-disciplinary meeting in which a deputy can respond to allegations against him or her — the department allowed the deputy to remain employed and serve a 25-day suspension, while the findings were kept intact, according to the report.

Another deputy was found to have repeatedly punched and shocked with a Taser a naked person who was no longer acting aggressively, resulting in an initial decision in October to suspend the deputy for 15 days for using unreasonable force. After a grievance hearing, a settlement resulted in the deputy serving a three-day suspension while the force violations were changed to “unfounded.”

Spokespeople for the department have emphasized that there is nothing unusual, under any sheriff, about initial disciplinary decisions being changed after employees are afforded due process and the chance to address allegations against them.

In its response to the inspector general’s report, the department said the grievance process, which could include modifications to discipline, “is a crucial component in maintaining an equitable disciplinary process.”

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