In a speech meant to lay out his law enforcement vision, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Wednesday issued a blistering attack on the reforms embraced by the department in the wake of a major corruption scandal, arguing they may have done more harm than good.
Villanueva, whose 2-month-old administration has already become entangled in controversy, dismissed some efforts by the department to reduce force against inmates — the core problem that led to a culture of jail abuse — as a “social experiment” that backfired and put lives at risk.
Villanueva’s comments in his first address on the state of the department repeated familiar themes from his election campaign but offered few new ideas or specifics about how he planned to change policies and move the department forward.
“There is a need for transparency and accountability in order to regain the public’s trust in this organization,” Villanueva said during a news conference. “Today is our first step towards this effort.”
Villanueva slammed his predecessor, Jim McDonnell, who took office after a federal investigation into deputy violence against inmates in the county jail system led to the convictions of numerous top department leaders, including longtime Sheriff Lee Baca. McDonnell supported a host of reforms aimed at providing stronger oversight of the jails and more civilian review.
The new sheriff displayed charts and graphs that he said showed that assaults on staff, inmate-on-inmate assaults and use of force in the jails increased after McDonnell took office.
“Literally, someone thought it was a good idea to tell their deputies to put their hands in their pockets, and that somehow was going to lead to a better outcome. The exact opposite happened,” Villanueva said. “We ended up with higher levels of force by the deputies because now they’re responding to greater and greater incidences of inmate assaults on staff.”
McDonnell issued a statement defending the reforms and expressing alarm at Villanueva’s comments.
“We are seeing evidence that the department is losing hard-earned progress on many fronts,” he said.
Citing department statistics, The Times has previously reported that significant force by deputies — incidents causing any type of injury — was down last year by 60% from 2009, when it hit its highest point in nearly a decade. A federal court monitor overseeing consent decrees in the jails, as well as watchdogs, agreed that the most severe, bone-breaking injuries that had been happening have nearly vanished.
Assistant Sheriff Bob Olmsted, who spoke out about jail abuse several years ago and was brought back by Villanueva to oversee the custody division, said at the news conference that he’s seen some obvious improvements from the reforms since he last worked at the Sheriff’s Department as a jail commander.
“I can tell you the significant broken bones and that aspect of it seems to me to have curtailed,” said Olmsted, who stood at the lectern as a member of Villanueva’s command staff.
In an interview, Richard Drooyan, the federal monitor who oversees changes mandated by consent decrees in the jails, said he watched Villanueva’s news conference and noted that many of the statistics about inmate-on-inmate assaults and inmate-on-staff assaults before 2017 may not be fully reliable because of problems with how the department captured data.
The county’s Office of Inspector General wrote a report in July 2017 revealing problems with the department’s antiquated data systems and helped spur changes in the way the department tracked jail statistics.
Villanueva claimed that under the previous administration, jail employees were directed to stop counting “gassings” — the throwing of urine, feces or other bodily fluids on staff members — as instances of inmate violence against staff because they were “too numerous.”
Cathleen Beltz, who helps oversee the jail system as a member of the Office of Inspector General, said the department has continued to track gassings in recent years.
Former Assistant Sheriff Kelly Harrington, who served under McDonnell, agreed, saying gassings were always considered very serious. Harrington was one of several high-level executives who were removed by Villanueva when he took office.
Villanueva also said that under the prior administration, too many deputies were investigated and relieved of duty, causing the department to spend money on deputies who were not working. He said morale was so low that injured deputies, who might otherwise have come to work, would stay home instead, causing a drain on expenses.
“The previous administration treated our employees as if they were disposable liabilities,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva’s speech came a day after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took the unusual step of publicly rebuking him for reinstating a deputy who had been fired in connection with allegations of stalking and abuse — calling the sheriff’s judgment into question and setting off a political crisis for his fledgling administration.
The supervisors approved a motion asking Villanueva to reconsider his decision.
Part of Villanueva’s address Wednesday was devoted to defending the reinstatement of the deputy, Caren Carl Mandoyan. Chief Steve Gross, who oversees South Patrol, said he helped conduct a factual analysis of Mandoyan’s case, finding that it did not merit termination. He said some of the allegations against Mandoyan were founded, but some were not.
Contrary to what Villanueva told the supervisors Tuesday, Gross said Mandoyan decided not to waive his rights to the confidentiality of his file after all. It is unclear whether the supervisors will be able to review the file, as they requested.