On Friday, California’s Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is also President Joe Biden’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, announced that he is launching a civil rights probe into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD).
The agency is the largest sheriff’s department in the United States and operates America’s biggest jail system.
According to a news release from Becerra’s office, “the investigation will seek to determine whether LASD has engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.”
BREAKING: This is huge. A similar federal @CivilRights investigation into #LAPD abuses resulted in a 2001 consent decree that led to dramatic reforms. My guess is LA County will almost certainly agree to some state oversight of the #LASD after this inquiry is over (or even b/4) https://t.co/ZkbOvgF1Th
— Frank Stoltze (@StoltzeFrankly) January 22, 2021
“Those of us in positions of public trust know that the job comes with the solemn obligation to be accountable to the people we serve,” said Attorney General Becerra on Friday. “Because of the nature of the work involved in law enforcement, that duty of care is heightened.”
“There are serious concerns and reports that accountability and adherence to the legitimate policing practices have lapsed at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” he continued. “We are undertaking this investigation to determine if LASD has violated the law of the rights of the people of Los Angeles County.”
The California Department of Justice (DOJ) instigated the investigation following accusations of “excessive force, retaliation, and other misconduct” and “in response to the absence of sustained and comprehensive oversight of LASD’s operations,” according to the AG’s office.
The Los Angeles Times reports, “the announcement comes after a series of high-profile shootings and allegations of misconduct within the department that have triggered widespread protests and demands from community organizers and lawmakers for independent investigations.”
— Alex Villanueva (@LACoSheriff) January 22, 2021
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva responded with a statement on Friday afternoon that said he looks “forward to this non-criminal ‘pattern and practice’ investigation.”
“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,” Sheriff Villanueva said. “During my administration, we have routinely requested the State Office of the Attorney General to monitor our investigations, and we will provide immediate access to all information in our possession.”
More details from the Los Angeles Times:
In September, a congressional subcommittee requested that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate allegations of systemic abuses by “criminal gangs” of L.A. County deputies that use aggressive tactics and prize violence. Records show that the county has paid out roughly $55 million in lawsuits and legal claims in which deputies have been accused of belonging to a secret clique.
Los Angeles County has become a flashpoint in the national discourse over how to reform and monitor law enforcement, a debate that took on urgency following the police killing last year of George Floyd and other abuses of Black men and women. Sheriff Alex Villanueva has clashed with the Board of Supervisors since taking office in December 2018, as the board has challenged the sheriff’s decisions to rehire deputies with histories of misconduct. More recently, Villanueva and the board have tangled over the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and budget cuts.
The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, a watchdog group appointed by the supervisors, took the unprecedented step of calling for Villanueva’s resignation last fall, saying he’s dragged his feet on critical reforms, resisted oversight of the department and failed to hold deputies accountable.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors was instrumental in establishing the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission in 2016. Cullors’ allies say she brought the idea to the table and organized local communities to demand it. She led a campaign for a countywide ballot measure that was overwhelmingly approved by voters last March that granted the body independent authority to subpoena documents or witnesses pertinent to its investigations. She said the new law would be a way “to hold the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department accountable” and “make sure L.A. County continues to move forward with a care first jail never ethos.”
Sheriff Villanueva has challenged the oversight board’s legal authority to subpoena him to testify. After the committee directed the county’s inspector general to subpoena Villaneuva last year, he called the move a “public shaming endeavor.”