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California launches civil rights investigation of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

The agency has resisted civilian oversight even after several fatal shootings by deputies.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva addresses a press conference on the steps of the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles providing more details of the arrest of more than 150 people at a Super-spreader event in Palmdale.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in December.Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Friday announced a state civil rights investigation of the perpetually troubled Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department after allegations of excessive force.

The state will investigate a possible pattern of unconstitutional law enforcement, the attorney general's office said in a statement.

"The California Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation comes on the heels of allegations of excessive force, retaliation, and other misconduct, as well as a number of recent reported incidents involving LASD management and personnel," the office said.

Becerra, President Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, tweeted, "There are serious concerns and reports that accountability and adherence to legitimate policing practices have lapsed at LASD."

Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in a statement that he has repeatedly asked the attorney general's office for its oversight.

Family members of victims protest outside sheriff's home in La Habra, CA.
Protesters, including family members of shooting victims, are kept behind a slinky barrier outside the home of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Dec. 23, 2020 in La Habra, Calif.Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

"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."

Villaneuva and his department have been the target of recurring protests over fatal shootings. The department has often responded to criticism and outside probes defiantly. In 2019, it opened an investigation into the county's inspector general, alleging the office obtained documents illegally.

Among the sheriff's department's most controversial killings was the shooting of 18-year-old Andres Guardado in June 2020. An independent autopsy released by his family in July said he was shot five times in the back.

Sheriff's detectives had placed a security hold on the county coroner's conclusions, and Villanueva defended the blackout as necessary to preserve the investigation's integrity. But the coroner's office launched a rare inquest that found Guardado's death was a homicide. The deputy who shot him declined to testify in the inquest.

The department has also been criticized for its longstanding "deputy gangs," which a report last week by Loyola Law School numbered at 18.

"These deputy gangs foster a culture of violence and escalate uses of force against community members, including fatal shootings," said author Sean Kennedy, executive director of the school's Center for Juvenile Law & Policy, in a statement. "The institutional failure to address these deputy gangs in any meaningful way has deprived the community of equal justice under the law."

Last year, leaders of the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Oversight and Reform called on the Department of Justice to investigate the sheriff's department, alleging the deputy cliques "adhere to white supremacist ideologies, belong to 'criminal gangs,' and engage in an 'aggressive style of policing' motivated by racism."

In November, deputies working a protest in downtown Los Angeles were accused of covering up identifying information on their name tags in violation of state law. The department defended the action as necessary because activists allegedly release deputies' personal information online.

In September, a number of deputies arrested a Los Angeles radio reporter covering a protest outside a hospital where deputies who had been injured in a shooting were being treated. The department claimed the reporter had not identified herself as a member of the media, and Villanueva accused her of being engaged in "activism."

But subsequent video of the arrest appeared to show those claims were wrong, and a charge of obstructing police was never filed. The county's civilian inspector general, Max Huntsman, agreed that the department's claims "may have been false."

The following month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' civilian oversight commission called for Villanueva to resign and looked into the possibility of impeaching him. Villanueva refused to resign, calling the board's criticism of him "downright un-American."

Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, said the group has been calling on the California attorney general to investigate the department since fall.

"We hope that we’ll get some semblance of justice in the name of the people who have been killed by the sheriff’s department," she said.

Noting the department's history of wrongdoing — former Sheriff Lee Baca reported to prison last year after being convicted on federal charges of obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI — Abdullah said, "It’s very difficult to be considered one of the worst sheriffs considering who Villanueva’s predecessors were."

The ACLU of Southern California has also called for the state to investigate the department.

"We applaud the attorney general for answering the call by grassroots groups and the families of those killed by sheriff’s deputies to launch an investigation into the pattern of unconstitutional policing by Sheriff Villanueva and the LASD," Andrés Kwon, policy counsel for the organization, said in a statement.