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Criminal Justice

CA Attorney General Investigating Riverside Sheriff’s Department, Focusing On Jail Deaths, Use Of Force

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco poses for a portrait with an American flag in the background.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco.
(Courtesy Riverside Sheriff's Department)
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California Attorney General Rob Bonta said Thursday he is investigating allegations of a pattern or practice of excessive use of force and other civil rights violations by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, pointing in part to high rates of death and use of force in the jails.

Bonta said the county “has among the highest both in raw numbers and in per capita data deaths in custody, high levels of use of force in custody, of using your firearm, of deaths by firearm.”

He promised a thorough investigation, and suggested his office will use its subpoena power to compel the Sheriff’s Department to hand over documents and force testimony from personnel.

“It is time for us to shine a light on the Riverside County Sheriff’s office and its practices,” Bonta said.

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Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco slammed the investigation as "a political stunt" based on activists' "false and misleading statements and ... lies."

The backstory

Eighteen people died in Riverside County jails in 2022 — the most in at least 15 years. Community activists have long complained about unfair treatment of people of color in custody and on the streets by sheriff’s deputies.

The department is the fourth largest sheriff’s agency in the nation.

In a letter to the state agency that oversees local jails earlier this month, the ACLU of Southern California and two community groups claimed Riverside County correctional officers smuggle in drugs as jail overdoses climb, relatives were notified days after a loved one’s death in jail, and an incarcerated person was given “puzzle books” as mental health treatment.

The sheriff's response

In a video statement, Sheriff Bianco claimed the investigation “is based on nothing but false and misleading statements and straight out lies from activists, including their attorneys,” and predicted the inquiry “will prove to be a complete waste of time and resources.”

The sheriff continued: “Had the attorney general or anyone else from [the state Department of Justice] reached out with questions or concerns, we could have provided more than enough evidence to prove these allegations false. He failed to do that.”

Bianco said his department has "absolutely nothing to hide, and will be more than cooperative and accommodating with this investigation."

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The sheriff argued the inquiry is "a political stunt" designed to win the backing of “an anti-law enforcement activist base … when [Bonta] announces his run for governor.”

Activists react

“We’re super enthusiastic that the Department of Justice in California is finally looking into Riverside,” said Luis Nolasco of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “We’re hopeful this is the first step” towards greater oversight of the Sheriff's Department by the county supervisors and the state, he said.

Nolasco argued the department has long resisted oversight and accountability. “Right now, you can do whatever you want and get away with it,” he said.

“We’re pleased that the DOJ’s investigation seems to be wide-ranging and that it will include a review of patrol patterns and practices as well as what’s happening inside the jails,” said Avalon Edwards from Starting Over Inc., one of the groups that signed the letter.

“There is no other option,” Edwards said, arguing that other agencies, including the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, have failed to exercise adequate oversight.

They argued the Sheriff’s Department has a culture that results in the mistreatment of people behind bars. “There is no view that incarcerated people are people deserving of care,” Edwards said.

A controversial sheriff

Sheriff Bianco is a one-time member of the right wing militia group The Oath Keepers and supports the “Constitutional sheriffs” movement, which asserts that federal and state authorities are subordinate to a local sheriff’s authority.

Last year, Bianco appeared with a controversial far-right figure at a political fundraiser.

This story has been updated to include Sheriff Bianco's statement.

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