Sheriff's Department Reverts To Less Stringent 2012 Deputy Disciplinary Rules, At Least For Now

Newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was sworn in Monday, Dec. 3. (Courtesy Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department)

By Frank Stoltze and Paul Glickman

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has reverted to less stringent deputy discipline guidelines that were in place in 2012, pursuant to an order by the County Employee Relations Commission. Gone, at least for now, are guidelines adopted in 2013 to stop jailhouse beatings by deputies and 2016 guidelines to deter lying.

The commission voted on Nov. 26 to accept a hearing officer's recommendation that the sheriff's department had violated the commission's rules by failing to first negotiate the new guidelines with the deputies union, which had filed a formal complaint to the commission.

[FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Sheriff Villanueva ordered the change in the discipline rules prior to the Employee Relations Commission making a ruling. Commission staff initially provided LAist with erroneous information.]

The panel also endorsed Hearing Officer Sheri Ross' recommendation that it order the department to "meet and confer" with the union about what to do with the 2013 and 2016 changes.

The rules "may come back or they may not," said Ray Leyva, Sheriff Alex Villanueva's pick for undersheriff. "We'll go back to the table."

Villanueva assured LAist he will hold deputies to account for violating policies.

"We have been ordered to revert to the old standard, but we are not removing any safeguards," the sheriff said in a text. He did not elaborate.

Leyva said when it comes to reviewing deputy discipline cases, "the facts will speak for themselves, and that's what we're going to base everything on."

During the election campaign Villanueva criticized former Sheriff Jim McDonnell's handling of some discipline cases, arguing that good deputies were treated harshly for minor violations.


Some of the rules being eliminated, at least for the time being:

This rule had merited a penalty from five days' suspension up to termination:

  • Violating the inmate anti-retaliation policy

These rules had merited termination:

  • Documenting false information in a crime or investigative report
  • Documenting false information in any court document
  • Documenting false information in a force report
  • Falsification of inmate safety checks
  • Making false statements under oath
  • Violating the department's "core values"

Some of the rules being weakened, at least for the time being:

  • The maximum penalty for failing to safeguard individuals in custody had been termination; it reverts to a 10-day suspension.
  • The penalty for failure to report use of force had been a 15-30 day suspension for the first offense and termination for the second offense; it reverts to a 5-25 day suspension.
  • The penalty for making false or misleading statements during an administrative (internal) or criminal investigation had been termination; it reverts to a minimum penalty of a 15-day suspension, with a maximum penalty of termination.
  • The minimum penalty for lying to a supervisor had been a 20-day suspension; it reverts to a 10-day suspension.
  • The maximum penalty for using a county vehicle without authorization had been termination; it reverts to a 5-day suspension.
  • The maximum penalty for driving a county vehicle or an individual's personal car for county business while impaired was termination; it reverts to a 30-day suspension.
  • The maximum penalty for careless or negligent handling of a weapon resulting in the weapon's discharge had been a 20-day suspension; it reverts to a 5-day suspension.

Derek Hsieh, executive director of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said the rank and file want to ensure that they're "treated fair whether they're right or wrong, and that the other deputies can respect the discipline that their colleagues got, not because it's a small amount of discipline or a lot, but it's administered in a way that they feel is just."

The union leader said hundreds of deputies and former deputies could be affected by a return to the 2012 guidelines, raising the question of whether deputies who were fired or suspended will get their jobs back or receive back pay.

A SIGNIFICANT CHANGE

The changes are significant. The 2013 standards were imposed in the months before former Sheriff Lee Baca resigned and were designed in part to address jailhouse beatings and cover-ups by deputies. Some were recommended by a blue ribbon panel convened in the wake of the jail violence scandal that led to the criminal convictions of former Sheriff Lee Baca, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and about 20 other sheriff's officials on charges of corruption and obstruction of justice.

Among the violations that have been eliminated was one called "violating the Inmate anti-retaliation policy" and another called "falsification of inmate safety checks." Both were fireable offenses.

The 2016 standards were the work of McDonnell, who was elected in 2014 on a reform agenda.

Many of them addressed honesty by deputies. McDonnell added "documenting false information in a crime report" and "violating the department's core standards" as offenses meriting termination. He had also increased the minimum suspension for lying to a supervisor.

CONCERNS RAISED

The employee relations commission has not yet voted on two of Ross' other recommended remedies: Order the department to alter any discipline imposed under the newer guidelines to conform to the 2012 rules, and amend employees' personnel records to reflect the changes.

A permanent return to the 2012 guidelines would worry Patti Giggans, chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.

"We don't want to go backwards, where deputies in custody are brutalizing inmates in any way," she said.

Peter Eliasberg, senior counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, also voiced concerns, particularly about the potential loss of the guideline that prohibited sheriff's personnel from retaliating against inmates.

There is "substantial evidence in both the [2012] Citizens Commission on Jail Violence report and reports put out by the ACLU that there was a pattern of sheriff's personnel retaliating against inmates in the jail for among other things filing complaints or talking to ACLU staff," said Eliasberg. "So this is a very important provision to protect the rights of inmates, given the history of jail abuse by the sheriff's department."

In addition, a consent decree that arose from a 2014 class action lawsuit known as Rosas v. Baca requires the department to have a policy that prohibits sheriff's personnel from retaliating against inmates," Eliasberg said, adding that if the department fails to resurrect that rule, the department will be "in violation of the federal consent decree."

The Rosas v. Baca class action lawsuit led to a 2014 settlement that included the creation of the consent decree.

Eliasberg said the Rosas settlement also "talks about having a zero tolerance policy for lying and failing to report use of force, so weakening the discipline for those acts is inconsistent with what the Citizen's Commission recommended, and again, the thrust of the Rosas lawsuit."

Watchdog groups had credited the tougher discipline guidelines for playing a role in a significant reduction in violence against inmates in L.A.'s jails. But the deputies union's Hsieh rejected that idea, arguing that the reduction was mainly a result of more supervision and better training of guards.

The reforms went beyond changes to the discipline system. The sheriff's department has installed hundreds of surveillance cameras in its seven jails, meaning almost any use of force is caught on tape, according to jail sources.

A TOTAL OF 45 RULE CHANGES

The department had made a total of 45 changes to the rules in 2013 and 2016, according to Ross' Aug. 31 report. Besides creating several new rules, it had toughened some existing ones, sometimes by increasing the possible number of suspension days and sometimes by toughening the punishment for some offenses to termination. [See the breakdown of some of those rule changes above.]

The move back to the 2012 guidelines also eliminates certain criteria for determining discipline. So for the time being, the department will no longer take into consideration off-duty conduct that affects the department's "reputation" or actions that may cause "harm to public trust," according to Ross' report.

The new sheriff has carried out a series of changes since taking office on Dec. 3. He replaced the entire top tier of the department's leadership, and he ordered all of the nearly 500 mid-level managers — lieutenants, captains and commanders — to essentially reapply for their jobs. Villanueva had those officials temporarily remove from their uniforms the pins that signify their rank. The sheriff also reassigned the department's two constitutional policing advisors, saying he will replace them.

This story was updated on Dec. 18, 2018.


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