The LA Sheriff's Department Hasn't Turned Over Most Of Its Deputy Shooting And Sexual Assault Files — And Now It's Being Sued
Already under fire for what critics say is a lack of transparency, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been sued by the ACLU for allegedly failing to comply with a California law that requires the disclosure of records relating to all deputy shootings and serious misconduct involving lying or sexual assault.
The ACLU was a key sponsor of the police transparency law, SB 1421, which took effect in January. The organization said that, since then, it has requested records from 400 law enforcement agencies around California, going back a number of years.
"The L.A. Sheriff's Department is the only one out of those 400 agencies to refuse to comply with the requests altogether," said Peter Bibring, the ACLU's director of police practices.
The department also has been largely unresponsive to requests from KPCC and a statewide collaboration of 40 news outlets seeking records covered by the transparency law.
So far, the sheriff has provided records in response to just 6% of the collaboration's requests.
In response to the ACLU's lawsuit, the Sheriff's Department said in a statement that it didn't have the personnel to find and provide the documents that were requested, calling SB 1421 an "unfunded mandate from the legislature."
The statement also suggested the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is to blame.
The board recently imposed a partial hiring freeze on the Sheriff's Department and withheld $147 million until the sheriff comes up with a "budget mitigation plan." The move came after Sheriff Alex Villanueva overspent his budget by $67 million in his first seven months in office.
"Our budget mitigation efforts have left us with an insufficient capacity to handle the deluge of thousands of ... SB 1421 requests for documents," the statement said. "Unfortunately, funding to date for sufficient personnel and equipment to meet these demands has yet to be received."
The department employs approximately 18,000 people, about half of whom are civilian support personnel. It's unclear how many people the sheriff has assigned to respond to records requests.
The county has provided the Sheriff's Department with funding for seven additional staff to handle SB 1421 records requests, and it will consider adding more in the fiscal year that starts next July, said Lennie LaGuire, spokeswoman for County CEO Sachi Hamai.
A CHANGING STORY + 'A CATCH-22'
In its lawsuit, the ACLU said the department offered a different reason in March for not complying with the civil liberties group's request, saying it was "too broad in scope" under California's Public Records Act, which requires that a request for records reasonably describe the identifiable record or records.
"If you would please provide us with more detailed information such as: the name of the deputy that you want records for, we will be happy to assist you," the department told the ACLU, according to the lawsuit.
The ACLU's lawsuit notes that hundreds of other California agencies had produced records or agreed to produce records responsive to the same Public Records Act request.
It also notes that the Sheriff's Department website already details the number of incidents involving serious uses of force that occur each month — an indication that the department has already identified at least some of the deputies whose records would be responsive to the ACLU's request.
The ACLU contends that the department's demand for the names of deputies it wants records for places the civil rights group — and anyone else for that matter — in a Catch-22 situation.
"Given the secrecy of peace officer records prior to the passage of SB 1421, it is impossible for the ACLU or any requestor to provide the names of deputies who have disclosable records of misconduct," the lawsuit said.
The suit points out that under the Public Records Act, law enforcement agencies have "a duty to assist a requestor in the completion of a [document] request due to the agency's superior knowledge of its own records."
L.A. County's Office of Inspector General and the Sheriff's Civilian Oversight Commission also have said the Sheriff's Department has either been slow to produce records or has refused to disclose them at all.
As a result, the Board of Supervisors is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to give the Oversight Commission the power to subpoena documents and testimony from the department.
'HE HAD NO GUN ... I STILL DON'T HAVE ANSWERS'
The ACLU sued on behalf of three families whose loved ones were fatally shot by deputies — including the family of Jazmyne Eng, a woman with schizophrenia who was killed while holding a small hammer.
KPCC highlighted the 2012 shooting of Eng while she was seeking help inside a Rosemead medical clinic in its "Officer Involved" series.
"To this day [the three families have] not received vital records on the deaths of their loved ones and on the deputies who pulled the triggers," the suit said.
Demetra Johnson is also a plaintiff. Her son — Anthony Weber, 16 — was killed last year in the Westmont neighborhood of South L.A. by deputies who said he had a gun in his waistband. The Sheriff's Department didn't find a gun that day, but claimed that one found more than a week later inside a nearby home belonged to Weber.
"He had no gun, nothing to threaten them," Johnson said in a statement provided by the ACLU.
"It has been more than a year, and I still don't have answers," she said. "We deserve to see those records, not just for my family, but because it will help change the Sheriff's Department."
The third plaintiff is Zachary Wade. His nephew, Nephi Arreguin, was killed in May 2015 in Cerritos. According to the suit, Arreguin was in his car, possibly sleeping, when deputies approached, suspecting him of burglary. Shortly thereafter, Areguin was shot — there is a dispute over whether he was sitting in the car when he was shot or driving toward a deputy.