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Criminal Justice

Sheriff Villanueva Continues To Defy Subpoena And Refuses To Testify At Hearing On Alleged Deputy Gangs

Alex Villanueva, in his sheriff's uniform, gestures at a lectern with the state and county flags on either side of him.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images)
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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has reversed course and decided against testifying about deputy gangs to the Civilian Oversight Commission, defying for a second time a subpoena from the panel.

Villanueva, who is facing former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna in this November's election, was scheduled to testify Monday in a highly anticipated appearance on what some have described as one of the most pressing problems at the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.

In a letter to the panel’s executive director sent Sunday, Villanueva said he decided against testifying because the commission refused to agree to a series of demands, including to preview all exhibits to be presented at the hearing, the ability to cross-examine other witnesses, and a “neutral hearing officer.”

“I was deeply disappointed to learn the Commission is unwilling to allow very basic and reasonable elements of a legitimate oversight meeting designed to understand the truth,” Villanueva wrote. “It makes neutral observers question whether the Commission’s real agenda is to learn the facts, or to put on a show.”

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Villanueva said he’s worried about “gotcha” questions.

"It sounds like Sheriff Villanueva is afraid be sworn under penalty of perjury and face questioning about deputy gangs in the LASD," Sean Kennedy, who chairs the oversight committee, told LAist. "It suggests that he has something to hide."

The Power To Subpoena

State law, the L.A. Board of Supervisors and a measure overwhelmingly approved by county voters give the commission the power to subpoena the sheriff — without condition. Villanueva has defied five subpoenas, according to the commission.

The sheriff was first subpoenaed to testify at the panel’s July 1 hearing. His lawyer claimed at the time that the panel’s chief counsel had a conflict of interest due to other work his firm had representing the LASD. He also said there were “inadequate security measures” at Loyola Law School, where the hearings are held.

Chief Counsel Bert Deixler has said the assertion that he has a conflict is “completely false” and that the issue has been addressed by county lawyers.

What To Expect Monday

Monday will mark the civilian commission’s fourth public hearing. It’s unclear who will testify. The panel has kept the witness list secret, citing fears of intimidation and retaliation expressed by people who take the stand.

The hearings have at times produced damning testimony, including from a sheriff's lieutenant who described how a deputy gang called the Executioners exerted extraordinary influence over the Compton Station.

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The commission launched what it’s calling a “full-scale” investigation into deputy gangs earlier this year, relying largely on a group of pro-bono lawyers and modeling itself after the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence a decade ago.

The move followed a series of lawsuits and reports that suggested deputy gangs are a serious problem inside the department.

All along Villanueva has dismissed the panel’s inquiry. He has called it a “fishing expedition and political theater” and “the weaponization of government in order to influence the outcome of an election.”

Former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna forced Villanueva into a November runoff after the sheriff garnered just 30% of the vote in the June primary — well below the majority he needed to win the election outright.

Luna won 25% of the vote.

What The Candidates Told Us About Deputy 'Gangs'

We asked all candidates running for sheriff in the primary this question:

Do you believe secretive deputy subgroups or “gangs” exist inside the Sheriff’s Department and if so do you think they are a problem? How would you address this issue?

Here's what Luna and Villanueva told us:

Alex Villanueva

"Yes, cliques exist. You use the word 'gangs' — I am the Sheriff and I understand the legal terminology. A gang is three or more individuals affiliated for the purposes of committing crime.

We were the first law enforcement department to ban these cliques and even fire some who were involved in illegal activity. In fact, AB-958, the bill that bans subgroups, was based off the policy I created and implemented. I was also the original sponsor of the bill.

The repeated unproven assertion that our department, which is now majority Latino, in addition to African Americans and Asians, is riddled with 'gangs' is disturbing. Especially since the majority of accusations come from politicians with agendas and activists from the extreme left. The term deputy gang has become a racial dog whistle, particularly evident since as a Latino sheriff I’m the only sheriff who has done anything about the issue."

Robert Luna

"The reports are clear that the L.A. Sheriff’s Department has a perpetual gang problem — and this is unacceptable. I will not only get rid of gangs within the Sheriff’s Department, I will also change LASD’s culture to ensure that gangs do not resurface in the future.

Any employee, no matter their rank within the Department, will be terminated if they are found to have ties to a deputy gang. I will utilize Early Intervention supervisory warning systems to monitor employee behavior. I will bring in outsider partners including federal and state intervention and the Civilian Oversight Commission to conduct their own research on gang activity within the Department. And, I will not only hold the employees accountable, but I will hold their supervisors and management accountable for allowing unethical behavior.

As Sheriff, I will ensure that deputies and employees are performing their jobs effectively, empathetically, and constitutionally within the Department. I will create Department-wide standards that emphasize the law enforcement code of ethics to serve and protect. And, I will only promote employees to management positions who exemplify these values.

And, I will reform LASD’s culture and policies to support the wellbeing and safety. This includes providing mental healthcare, and creating peer counseling and mentoring programs. And, just as importantly, I will work to reduce any stigma associated with mental health care to ensure that all deputies take full advantage of these services.

I am the only candidate running from outside of the Sheriff’s Department, and it takes an outsider to be able to make these changes and root gangs out of the Sheriff’s Department."

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