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Opinion

Editorial: Sheriff Villanueva’s vision for LASD is as dangerous and backward as we feared

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who was sworn in last month, holds a press conference in Los Angeles on Jan. 30.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

In case anyone had any doubt about who L.A. County voters elected as sheriff late last year, Alex Villanueva set them straight Wednesday as he laid out a vision that leads inexorably backward to a time of excessive force against jail inmates.

He branded the department’s policy and practice of easing up on inmate abuse a “social experiment” gone wrong.

For the record:
10:30 AM, Feb. 01, 2019 An earlier version of this editorial stated that the sheriff’s news conference took place Thursday. It was Wednesday.

He decried the large number of deputies that his predecessor relieved of duty, yet seemed unconcerned about the alleged misconduct that led to their being sidelined.

He tied an increase in jail violence to former jails chief Terri McDonald — who actually reduced the number of inmate suicides and serious injuries, according to outside jail monitors — and to his predecessor as sheriff, Jim McDonnell, a key member of the commission that investigated jail violence and the architect of polices and procedures that continued to bring down serious injuries.

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Alex Villanueva laid out a vision that leads inexorably backward to a time of excessive force against jail inmates.

He questioned the validity of jail statistics about inmate attacks on deputies not because of any finding or study, but because “we received word that someone within the previous administration decided” not to count certain types of attacks.

He brushed off a reporter’s questions about the discrepancy between his claims and the statement by his own jails chief — Assistant Sheriff Bob Olmsted — that serious inmate injuries have declined significantly from the time that Olmsted first blew the whistle on abuse and mismanagement in the jails nearly a decade ago.

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He reiterated his claim that a deputy was wrongly dismissed after having been accused by a colleague of domestic violence, and noted that the deputy was only one of six who might be reinstated in advance of a “truth and reconciliation” process — which might result in the return of dozens more deputies who were fired or resigned with charges pending. He dismissed the Board of Supervisors’ criticisms of the move as political “grandstanding.” And he repeated the dubious assertion of many a politician: that unlike all the others, he is “not a politician.”

In a series of stories beginning in 2011, the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets reported on serious abuse of L.A. County jail inmates at the hands of sheriff’s deputies, whose actions were ignored or even encouraged by their superiors, including Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, both of whom were sentenced to prison for obstruction of justice. A Citizens Commission on Jail Violence found serious mismanagement and shocking misconduct. Plaintiffs recovered hundreds of millions of dollars from county taxpayers for the Sheriff Department’s failure to protect inmates and properly manage the jails.

The jails house many inmates who should properly be in psychiatric hospitals, and whose behavior is irksome and sometimes dangerous to deputies. Many deputies now complain that they can get in trouble for reacting against those inmates as they once did, before all the court-monitored “social experiments.” Villanueva, in his statements at Wednesday’s news conference, gave them a green light to get more physical — and to bring back the bad old days of not so long ago.

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