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Did The LA Sheriff's Department Systematically Violate People's Rights? The State Wants To Know

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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said "we had to...be a little bold" in addressing jail overcrowding. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)
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By Frank Stoltze and Robert Garrova

In his first two years in office, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has come under fire -- and scrutiny -- from local political leaders and watchdogs on issues of accountability, transparency, discipline, use of force, and more. Now he's facing a wide-ranging civil rights investigation by California's Department of Justice into whether his department has engaged in a "pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing," the state announced Friday.

The investigation was sparked by "credible reports" of excessive force, retaliation, and other misconduct at the Sheriff's Department, including reported incidents involving management, Attorney General Xavier Becerra told a news conference.

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The inquiry is "aimed at identifying and addressing potential systemic violations of the rights of the people of L.A. County," he said.

While declining to comment on the specifics of the allegations, Becerra said the state decided to investigate after a "thorough review" of "credible information, reports [and] evidence."

The investigation "also comes in response to the absence of sustained and comprehensive oversight" of the department, the DOJ said in a news release.

Noting that the Sheriff's Department is the largest in the nation, Becerra called on it to be "transparent, accountable and to cooperate with our investigation."

VILLANUEVA: 'FINALLY...AN IMPARTIAL, OBJECTIVE ASSESSMENT'

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In an emailed statement, Sheriff Alex Villanueva welcomed the inquiry. "I look forward to this non-criminal 'pattern and practice' investigation," he said. "Our Department may finally have an impartial, objective assessment of our operations, and recommendations on any areas we can improve our service to the community."

Villanueva has frequently clashed with the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and the County Board of Supervisors over accountability and oversight. Last October, the commission called on the sheriff to resign.

The oversight panel issued a statement praising the state's investigation "as a step toward realizing our collective goal of a department that is transparent, accountable and one which operates in a manner consistent with our constitution." The commission said it looks forward "to providing any assistance needed ... to ensure a full and fair investigation."

L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman, who has clashed bitterly with Villanueva, said in a statement he's "deeply gratified" that the state is looking into the department's performance and said his office will assist the investigation.

Villanueva has been criticized for rehiring deputies who had been fired for misconduct, for deactivating disciplinary proceedings against deputies accused of using excessive force, and for tolerating secret deputy cliques, some of which have been accused of violence. The department is also facing lawsuits alleging deputies used excessive force against protesters during last year's George Floyd demonstrations.

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A CALL TO FOCUS ON DEPUTY CLIQUES

Robert Bonner, a conservative former federal judge and ex-head of the DEA who sits on the Oversight Commission, expressed the hope that the investigation will "focus on deputy cliques and their impact on use of excessive force and also how they undermine discipline and accountability within the Sheriff's Department."

The ACLU of Southern California, which has frequently clashed with the sheriff, applauded the news of the investigation, noting that it was one of a number of groups that had written to Becerra last fall urging him to open an inquiry.

The civil rights group also called on the Board of Supervisors to work to "amend the county charter to give the board the power to impeach and remove sheriffs who violate public trust, obstruct oversight and sanction unconstitutional policing." The supervisors voted last November to explore options for removing Villanueva.

There have been several controversial deputy shootings in recent months, including the killings of Andres Guardado, Dijon Kizzee and Fred Williams. But Becerra said officer shootings are beyond the scope of the inquiry, since it is a civil investigation.

Another fierce Villanueva critic, Mariela Alburgues of Reform LA Jails, issued a statement calling the inquiry "long overdue, but welcome considering the rogue antics this Sheriff has spearheaded throughout his tenure."

The attorney general didn't comment on what steps might be taken if the DOJ determines there has been wrongdoing, although similar investigations into other California police departments have led to legal settlements to change certain practices.

President Biden has nominated Becerra to head up the Department of Health and Human Services. The Attorney General said his office will continue with the investigation after his departure.

The DOJ is requesting anyone with information relevant to the investigation to contact its Civil Rights Enforcement Section at Police-Practices@doj.ca.gov.