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Sheriff Villanueva’s reinstatement of deputies at odds with reforms, federal monitor says

Sheriff Villanueva’s reinstatement of deputies at odds with reforms, federal monitor says
For much of his few months in office, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, left, has faced questions about his decision to reinstate a deputy fired for violating policies against domestic violence and dishonesty. Another reinstated deputy was fired for unreasonable force. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

For several years, Los Angeles County’s vast jail system has been under careful monitoring by a team of court-appointed watchdogs who’ve helped implement policies to curb excessive force and retaliation against inmates.

But the lead monitor, Richard Drooyan, is now saying he’s concerned that years of progress could be undermined by recent decisions by Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose department operates the jail system.

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In a letter to Villanueva that was sent Wednesday and reviewed by The Times, Drooyan wrote that the reinstatements of two fired deputies — one discharged for dishonesty, the other for unreasonable force — were at odds with specific directives to the Sheriff’s Department against lying and unreasonable force by deputies.

“Reinstating deputies who have been fired for dishonesty or the excessive use of force is a significant step backwards and sends the wrong message to members of the department responsible for custody operations, many of whom have embraced the reforms that have been implemented and have worked hard to change the staff culture in the jail,” Drooyan wrote.

Drooyan’s letter is the latest alarm to be raised over Villanueva’s efforts to bring back deputies who were fired for misconduct. Watchdogs have also been troubled by Villanueva’s blistering attack on reforms in the jails, which he has said amounted to a “social experiment” that put lives at risk.

The Times reported that Villanueva in December reinstated one of his campaign volunteers, Caren Carl Mandoyan, who was fired in 2016 for violating department policies related to domestic violence and false statements. Another deputy, Michael Courtial, was given his job back in February after being terminated last year for unreasonable force and failing to de-escalate an encounter with a suspect.

At least four additional fired deputies were reinstated in the early months of Villanueva’s term. Villanueva has also said that the cases of about 68 deputies who were terminated under the previous administration — but whose cases were not adjudicated by the Civil Service Commission — are under review for reinstatement.

The Sheriff’s Department has said that 14 similar settlements that restored the jobs of fired deputies were agreed to under the previous sheriff, Jim McDonnell.

“The sheriff has been very clear in indicating that all Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department employees will be afforded due process,” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Capt. Darren Harris said in a statement.

Harris added that grievance procedures — as well as the process to reach a settlement to reinstate or modify the discipline of a county employee — are long-established systems supported by department policy and the Los Angeles County Charter. Harris said Villanueva was not available Thursday to speak about Drooyan’s letter.

The department is bound by two federal settlement agreements overseen by Drooyan and his team, one of which mandates that department employees use de-escalation techniques and deploy the least amount of force necessary to restrain inmates. Violation of the settlement agreements, also known as consent decrees, could ultimately place the Sheriff’s Department in contempt of court and cost the county additional funds in order to bring the department into compliance.

Drooyan also served as general counsel for the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, a blue-ribbon panel that issued scalding findings of misconduct and dysfunction in the Sheriff’s Department in 2012 and called for zero tolerance against dishonesty.

In his letter, Drooyan wrote that reinstating deputies who have lied or committed excessive force is inconsistent with the citizens commission’s recommendations. The panel’s report is often cited as a blueprint for reforming the department after a massive jail abuse scandal that led to the convictions of former Sheriff Lee Baca and 21 other department officials.

Drooyan told Villanueva that his decision to rehire the deputies “seriously undermines your ability to hold department personnel accountable for such misconduct in the future.”

Drooyan noted in his letter that in recent meetings, Villanueva said he was committed to carrying out jail reforms spelled out by the settlement agreements. Drooyan declined to comment on his letter.

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Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said Drooyan’s letter is a “striking” addition to the chorus of voices — including watchdogs and a broad coalition of progressive groups — that have expressed disapproval over the reinstatement of deputies fired for misconduct.

“The sheriff just continues with his bullheaded mantra of, ‘Oh, the deputies didn’t get due process,’ and doesn’t give much more than that because there isn’t a good answer for what he’s doing,” Eliasberg said, adding that reforms are at risk.

The ACLU also helps monitor the jail system and devotes resources to other aspects of police accountability. The organization filed the lawsuit about a culture of abuse in the jails that resulted in one of the settlement agreements.

The Board of Supervisors, which controls the county’s funding of the Sheriff’s Department, went to court last month to try to block Villanueva from reinstating Mandoyan. The board also directed the department to stop reevaluating the cases of fired deputies.

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