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Opinion

Editorial: What should we do about L.A. sheriff’s deputies with histories of misconduct?

Alex Villanueva
Following a state Supreme Court ruling, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva made clear that his department no longer maintains a list of deputies with “Brady” material in their files. But he said he would provide relevant information to the district attorney on a case-by-case basis.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The California Supreme Court last week rejected former Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s attempt to send the district attorney a list of 300 deputies with histories of dishonesty or other misconduct that prosecutors, once they know about it, may have to disclose to criminal defendants to protect their constitutional right to a fair trial.

Instead of turning over such lists, the court ruled, police may at most alert the D.A., one case at a time, that there may be compromising material in the file of an arresting officer or other police witness who is about to take the stand in a criminal case.

Even then, police can send over only the officer’s name, not the actual file. Ensuring that exculpatory material known to police and prosecutors actually gets to criminal defendants — as required under the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland — still will depend on additional work by prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges.

The California court’s ruling applies to each of the state’s police and sheriff’s departments.

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But the case has special significance in Los Angeles County, where McDonnell first tried to send the list to prosecutors, and where the Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs — the rank-and-file deputies’ union — sued to stop him.

McDonnell was responding in part to the hiring practices of his erratic predecessor, Lee Baca.

Baca’s tenure as sheriff was characterized by boom-and-bust hiring. Long periods without adding any new deputies were followed by binge hiring, often with insufficient scrutiny of applicants.

The department took on thousands of new deputies in 2007 and 2008, followed by a hiring drought that lasted until the department’s 2010 mass hiring of 280 deputies who formerly worked for a now-defunct county security force known as the Office of Public Safety. A later hiring spree added officers who had been left unemployed upon the dissolution of the Maywood Police Department — an agency notorious for taking in personnel who were rejected or fired by other police forces.

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In a series of stories beginning in 2012, The Times documented misconduct by sheriff’s deputies, supervisors and custody assistants hired or promoted during those periods. The problems included falsifying records, cheating on exams, lying to superiors, soliciting prostitutes and sex with underage girls. Some had been charged with assault. Many had convictions for drunk driving or battery.

Baca resigned in early 2014 amid federal investigations into deputy misconduct in the jails. The problem recruits were inherited by interim Sheriff John Scott, who ordered a review of thousands of deputy files and compiled a list of personnel who had committed misconduct involving moral turpitude.

When McDonnell became sheriff, he was frustrated in his attempts to weed out problem deputies. Termination proceedings were overturned by the Civil Service Commission when county-appointed advocates presented inadequate cases. A number of deputies couldn’t be deployed in the field, because if they made arrests their testimony at trial could too easily be undermined by information about their past misconduct; but neither could they be fired.

McDonnell attempted to toughen discipline standards and tried to send Scott’s list of problem deputies to the district attorney, as he believe was required under the Brady decision. But the deputies’ union blocked both actions. Ultimately the union helped oust McDonnell by supporting Alex Villanueva, a challenger who accused McDonnell of excessive deputy discipline and who branded the Brady roster a “fake list” drawn up after biased and retaliatory investigations.

In a series of stories in 2017, The Times detailed the misconduct — including falsifying evidence, obstructing investigations, accepting bribes and molesting a teenager — that landed dozens of deputies on the Brady list.

In a statement following the court ruling, Villanueva made clear that his department no longer maintains a Brady list but would provide relevant information to the district attorney on a case-by-case basis.

The decision to turn over less information about problem deputies to prosecutors is less a result of last week’s state Supreme Court ruling than it is of Villanueva’s election. In the space of five years, the department has moved from the Baca era, in which lax hiring added dozens and perhaps hundreds of problematic deputies, to the Scott and McDonnell eras, in which department leaders attempted to rein in the most troublesome personnel, and now to the Villanueva era. Villanueva has attempted to reinstate several deputies who were fired for cause under McDonnell and has promised to review dozens of other terminations.

He has also vowed to step up hiring.


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