Hundreds of truth and reconciliation commissions have been convened worldwide, featuring procedures established in the 1990s by South Africa’s post-apartheid commission. Such panels have in common a restorative justice model in which victims of wrongdoing air their grievances and seek reparations, perpetrators acknowledge their crimes and seek forgiveness, and, at least in theory, the entire society comes to terms with its past. Proceedings are generally conducted in public, in keeping with the goals of transparency and accountability. The commissioners are well-known and widely respected.
Upon his election as Los Angeles County sheriff last November, Alex Villanueva announced that he would convene a truth and reconciliation commission for the purpose of correcting wrongs that he said had been done by the Sheriff’s Department to county residents and to sheriff’s deputies. He said he would seek advice and counsel from outside the department, principally from the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, in determining the panel’s composition and procedures.
He had not yet unveiled the panel’s procedures or schedule when The Times reported in mid-January that Villanueva had rehired Caren Carl Mandoyan, a key campaign aide and former sheriff’s deputy who had been fired in 2016 after he allegedly committed domestic abuse against another deputy.
Villanueva’s truth commission is a lie. It operates in secret. Its existence is unacknowledged. It is exclusively internal.
Questioned by the Board of Supervisors on why he took back Mandoyan without first creating the truth and reconciliation commission and submitting his name, Villanueva said the case was so obvious that there was no point in waiting.
“We wanted to move forward,” he said on Jan. 29, adding that there were a half-dozen cases like Mandoyan’s that would come in advance of the commission being convened.
“Once we have [the commission] up and running, we’ll pick up the pace, obviously,” he told the supervisors.
On Thursday, The Times reported that Villanueva began working to reinstate Mandoyan even before taking office. The article cited an internal department email noting that as early as Nov. 30 (three days before Villanueva was sworn in) the sheriff-elect had made a “priority request” to process a review of Mandoyan’s case “to achieve the goal of returning him to work.” Times reporters viewed a document describing a case review conducted on Dec. 21 by three sheriff’s personnel: Assistant Sheriff Timothy Murakami, Chief Eliezer Vera and Chief Steven Gross.
They are described in the case review report as “the Truth and Reconciliation panel members.”
So it turns out that there is already a so-called truth and reconciliation commission. It existed and already was doing its work in December, weeks before the sheriff claimed he wanted advice on how to set it up.
Villanueva’s truth commission is a lie. It operates in secret. Its existence is unacknowledged. It is exclusively internal. It consists of three subordinates elevated to their positions by the sheriff and accountable only to him. It includes no reviewable process. It includes no airing of grievances, no acknowledgement of wrongdoing, no requests for forgiveness, no features of restorative justice. It is a star chamber in reverse, in which deputies may be given their jobs back even though their firings have been reviewed and upheld in a formal civil service process that included opportunities to present evidence and make arguments.
The commission seems designed to reach a predetermined outcome set by Villanueva. That’s doubly ironic, since he claimed his predecessor made the whole process necessary by predetermining outcomes.
“At the onset of the investigation,” he told the Board of Supervisors in January, “they decided what the outcome was, and so they empaneled the investigators: ‘Just find some facts you can cobble together that show they did it.’” The new sheriff failed to produce evidence that such a thing ever actually happened under his predecessor; but evidence shows that it’s precisely what Villanueva himself has done.
As for the promise to review wrongful convictions of people arrested by the Sheriff’s Department, Villanueva told the Board of Supervisors that the district attorney already has that angle covered. In other words, this is all about reinstating deputies who were fired for cause.
The sheriff has turned the principles of truth and reconciliation commissions upside down. He has made a mockery of truth, reconciliation and his office. He has attempted to redefine “reform,” which, in the context of the Sheriff’s Department, used to mean curbing violence and other bad behavior by deputies. We now see what it means to Villanueva: curbing discipline and outside scrutiny. Orwell (“war is peace,” “freedom is slavery”) would be impressed. L.A. County residents, on the other hand, should be angry.