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Criminal Justice

Panel Asks LA Sheriff Villanueva To Investigate Deputies Discouraging Vaccinations

An exterior of the LA County Twin Towers jail. A bus is parked outside, with County of Los Angeles Sheriff's Department painted in black letters along its side
Twin Towers Correctional Facilities.
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission has asked L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva to immediately investigate allegations by multiple health care workers that deputies are flouting COVID-19 regulations and spreading lies about vaccines inside Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

In an LAist story published last week, mental health personnel in the jail, including social workers and other staff, detailed a lawless environment in which unmasked deputies — many of whom said they were unvaccinated — have gone so far as to try to convince incarcerated people with severe mental and physical health issues not to get vaccinated.

“These reports are alarming, and require immediate departmental investigation because of the gravity of the issues presented by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Commission Executive Director Brian Williams wrote in a letter sent to Villanueva on Wednesday.

The letter requests an update by Feb. 16 on what steps the department took to investigate the complaints, adding that “such an investigation should include all [Sheriff’s Department] jail facilities.”

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It also asks for a report on the steps taken to address any allegations in our story that were found to be true, including the dissemination of vaccine misinformation, defacing COVID-19 informational signs, and posting unauthorized signs.

“Spreading inaccurate information by [Sheriff’s] deputies regarding COVID-19 not only puts incarcerated peoples’ health at risk, but also defies federal, state and local COVID-19 guidance,” Williams wrote.

Spreading inaccurate information by [Sheriff’s] deputies regarding COVID-19 not only puts incarcerated peoples’ health at risk, but also defies federal, state and local COVID-19 guidance.
— Civilian Oversight Commission Executive Director Brian Williams

If the allegations are true, “we think that it should take some immediate action from the Sheriff's Department to address the issues from everyone's perspective: from the safety of the deputies, those folks who are incarcerated, and even folks who are visiting the jail system,” Williams told us Thursday.

The Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Williams’ letter.

‘Social Dancing’ And ‘Let’s Go Brandon’

Five people who work in Twin Towers spoke to us on the condition they not be named because of fear of retaliation. Some said they were concerned deputies would fail to provide them security if it was discovered they had spoken with us.

The letter notes that Twin Towers has a daily count of more than 2,300 incarcerated people, with more than 1,000 of them having a mental illness, according to Sheriff’s Department data. Williams also pointed to department statistics showing that, as of late January, there had been 79 COVID-19 cases at Twin Towers, with an additional 12 incarcerated people awaiting test results.

According to four Twin Towers staffers, deputies defaced signs posted next to elevators on multiple floors that encouraged “social distancing” so that they read “social dancing,” and put numerous homemade signs on printer paper throughout hallways that said, “#fakenews,” “Let’s Go Brandon,” and other anti-Biden slogans. Jail staff said the altered signs are posted on nearly every floor of the jail.

All five staffers also said deputies rarely wear masks — or wear them improperly — when interacting with correctional staff and incarcerated people, including sick patients and those with mental illnesses. Deputies with COVID-19 come in to work, with symptoms such as coughing, and talk about it — even comparing their symptoms with each other — according to four of the sources.

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‘No Complaints Filed’

In a statement in response to our story, the Sheriff’s Department said “there have been no complaints filed” to the staff operating Twin Towers “against deputies in regards to their behavior with COVID-19 regulations.”

Jail health care workers have filed complaints to the Sheriff’s Department and correctional health services supervisory staff, alleging that deputies were unmasked, according to documents we reviewed.

The department also said it “has no information Sheriff Department personnel are discussing the vaccination process or the vaccination contents with any incarcerated inmates” at the jail.

County Inspector General Max Huntsman — who has repeatedly clashed with Villanueva about oversight and accountability — said the jail staff’s allegations “are consistent with the general rise in extremism at [the Sheriff’s Department] that Sheriff Villanueva has promoted with his politicization of the pandemic, including his refusal to enforce mask and vaccine mandates [and] his attacks on oversight.”

Only 56% of L.A.'s sworn deputies are fully vaccinated, significantly less than the 78% of professional staff who have full vaccination status, according to numbers provided by the Sheriff's Department last week.

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Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.