California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra on Friday announced that he is launching a civil rights investigation into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, an agency beset by allegations of deputy misconduct, controversial shootings and resistance to oversight from Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Becerra’s office will look at whether the department, the largest sheriff’s department in the country, has engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional policing.
“There are serious concerns and reports that accountability and adherence to legitimate policing practices have lapsed at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” Becerra said in a statement. “We are undertaking this investigation to determine if LASD has violated the law or the rights of the people of Los Angeles County.”
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.
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.
In a sign of the growing distrust between county leaders and the sheriff, the Board of Supervisors last year gave the commission authority to subpoena the department for internal records and testimony. A few months later, voters affirmed the move and Gov. Gavin Newsom followed by signing a state law that gives subpoena power to police oversight panels statewide.
When Villanueva defied a subpoena to testify about his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the jails, the county took him to court, testing the new check on his power.
Villanueva challenged the legality of the subpoena, describing it at a news conference as a “public shaming endeavor.” A judge ruled that the commission was well within its authority, however lawyers representing L.A. County dropped the case after the sheriff showed up voluntarily to the panel’s December meeting and agreed to appear again this week.
While civilian oversight efforts have provided an outside check on policing, they have faced criticism for not having enough power to force real changes in California, where police are granted significant privacy rights and other protections.