Civilian Watchdog Group Says Sheriff Villanueva has 'Turned Back The Clock On Reforms'

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the graduation ceremony for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy class 433 at East Los Angeles College, Friday, January 4, 2019. (Kyle Grillot / LAist)

The civilian commission that acts as a watchdog for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department has accused Sheriff Alex Villanueva of having "turned back the clock on reforms."

In a sternly-worded March 18 letter, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission said the sheriff's actions and statements, as well as those of his staff, have "eroded community trust" in the department.

The letter pointed to Villanueva's "legally questionable" reinstatement of Caren Carl Mandoyan, a deputy accused of domestic violence. It said the sheriff's handling of the case "invites cynicism about the [department's] commitment to real reform especially since steps were taken to reinstate the deputy before you were even sworn in."

The letter criticized Villanueva's suggestion that restrictions on the use of force against jail inmates be rolled back. And it said the oversight panel's requests for information about deputy cliques suspected of operating as violent gangs "have been met with dissembling and stonewalling."

Seven deputies filed legal claims earlier this month saying they've been intimidated and physically attacked by members of the Banditos gang of deputies at the department's East L.A. patrol station.

The oversight panel's letter to Villaneuva said that when it requested documents regarding "management's knowledge of and attempts to address the cliques ...the [department] initially delayed responding and later produced a single, non-responsive report about street gangs. This is unacceptable."

The letter acknowledged the sheriff's unit that handles such requests is "understaffed" but said commission requests are "a necessary component of our independent civilian oversight function." It said the panel cannot fulfill its mission "in any meaningful manner without timely and complete access to all relevant information."

The commission had previously been frustrated by what it considered to be a lack of urgency on the part of former Sheriff Jim McDonnell to confront the issue of alleged deputy gangs.

The letter to Villanueva was signed by Commission Chair Patti Giggans, Vice-Chair Priscilla Ocen and Executive Director Brian Williams.

The sheriff did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"Instead of undoing existing reforms, the [department] should rightly be investigating and implementing more reforms, to decrease uses of force on the streets in addition to in the jails," the letter said.

The panel has "worked collaboratively" with the [department] on issues ranging from increasing the number of the sheriff's mental evaluation teams to better compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the letter said.

"These reforms are far more important than any level of politics and acrimony," it said. The [commission] is committed to continuing to push for reform in the [department] and we are hopeful that you will wholeheartedly join us in this effort."

The commission invited Villanueva to attend its public meeting Tuesday to discuss the issues raised in the letter.

He will be there, said department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.