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Criminal Justice

LA County To Pursue 'All Legal Remedies' For Oversight On Sheriff Villanueva And His Department

An image of L.A. County Sheriff Villanueva's staring into the distance.
The L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva faces continuing criticism for refusing to submit to oversight of his department.
(Kyle Grillot for LAist)
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In a response to Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s efforts to block oversight of his troubled department, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a wide-ranging motion that would force him to provide access to all deputy discipline files and body-worn camera video to the Office of Inspector General.

The motion asks county lawyers “to pursue all legal remedies” to compel Villanueva to comply with state and county laws that give the Inspector General power to oversee the sheriff’s department. In addition, the motion asks for a report in 60 days on the feasibility of creating an independent “Office of Law Enforcement Standards” that would handle discipline of sheriff’s personnel.

It would be a radical change for the department’s nearly 10,000 deputies. But the idea is not unprecedented: the civilian Chicago Police Board, for example, decides discipline in certain cases.

The motion follows a report by the Inspector General that found the LASD fails to investigate all allegations of deputy misconduct, has closed investigations prematurely, and that a "code of silence" pervades both administrative and criminal investigations into deputies.

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It also was prompted by allegations that the LASD was blocking the Inspector General’s investigation into allegations that deputies have been harassing the families of people they shoot. Supervisors asked staff to find county funding for the families.

“We have families who can’t mourn for their loved ones in peace,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis. She noted that deputy misconduct allegations spurred the California Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the LASD earlier this year.

'Disparage And Delegitimize'

The sheriff has long accused supervisors of trying to undermine him, and did so again when he spoke to the board Tuesday.

“I believe that it’s part of your political agenda to disparage and delegitimize law enforcement and the sheriff’s department, in particular in the eyes of the public,” Villanueva told the board.

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The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) also condemned the board’s action and accused supervisors of ignoring rising crime. “Some of the Supervisors are hanging onto anti-law enforcement and 'Defund the Police' slogans not knowing their constituents are suffering,” association president James Wheeler said in a statement.

The sheriff argues that California law protecting the privacy of law enforcement officers allows him to hide almost all deputy discipline from the public and the Inspector General. (The exceptions include records involving shootings, serious uses of force, and where police departments found an officer lied or committed sexual assault.)

Villanueva is alone among county leaders in that interpretation.

His predecessor provided Inspector General Max Huntsman access to the Performance Recording and Monitoring System (PRMS), which tracks deputy behavior. Villanueva initially gave access — until six months into his term when Huntsman issued a highly critical report of the sheriff’s attempt to re-hire a deputy found to have engaged in domestic violence and perjury.

As for body-worn camera video, the sheriff contends the footage is evidence and therefore exempt from public disclosure. County lawyers say he nonetheless must grant “full access” to the Inspector General.

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For example, Huntsman has said he is unable to determine if deputies are activating their cameras because the LASD has refused him access. The L.A. Police Commission’s inspector general has full access to LAPD bodycam video.

Villanueva often claims giving Huntsman access to body-worn camera video and other LASD files would interfere with investigations. A new state law that took effect Jan. 1 states such Inspector General oversight “shall not be considered to obstruct the investigative functions of the sheriff.”

A Refusal To Answer Questions About Alleged Deputy 'Gangs'

The same law gave the inspector general subpoena power. Huntsman has issued only one subpoena, demanding that Villanueva answer questions about alleged deputy “gangs.” The sheriff has refused and is appealing a judge’s ruling that he do so.

In another example of concerns about Villanueva’s attempt to stymie oversight, the board asked the county CEO and IT Division to look at ways to “secure access” to the electronic databases and cloud storage systems controlled by the sheriff’s department.

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Supervisors also requested that District Attorney George Gascón investigate all alleged criminal conduct at the LASD and to tell them if he needs more money to do so.

The vote on the motion was 4-0, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger abstaining. Barger — the sheriff’s occasional ally on the board — said she had concerns about the motion and was prepared to vote “no.”

But the supervisor said she would not oppose the motion because she was “disgusted” by Villanueva’s comments to the board describing deputy shooting victims as “suspects.”

The board asked the staff to return with a report on the motion’s various requests in 60 to 90 days.

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Frank Stoltze covers a new movement for criminal justice reform at a time when not everybody shares the same vision.