California opens civil rights inquiry into LA county sheriff's department

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Sam Levin in Los Angeles
·3 min read
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<span>Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP</span>
Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The California department of justice has launched a civil rights investigation into the embattled Los Angeles county sheriff’s department (LASD), which has faced national scrutiny over killings and misconduct scandals, to determine whether it has engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional policing.

The investigation of the largest sheriff’s department in the US was announced by the state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, on Friday.

The DoJ did not identify specific cases, but said the inquiry follows allegations of excessive force, retaliation, misconduct and other incidents involving LASD management and personnel.

LASD, which has jurisdiction over nearly 200 different towns and cities in southern California, has a long history of racial profiling and brutality cases, controversial killings and corruption scandals.

In June, amid national protests against police violence, the agency faced significant backlash for the killing of Andrés Guardado, an 18-year-old who officers shot five times in the back. In September, LASD also fatally shot Dijon Kizzee, a 29-year-old who was riding a bike and fleeing after officers tried to stop him for an alleged “vehicle code” violation. In 2019, deputies fired 34 rounds at Ryan Twyman, an unarmed 24-year-old who was seated in a parked car.

LASD has also faced numerous allegations that officers were members of internal gangs engaged in violence, and that the leadership has failed to hold offenders accountable. Last summer, one whistleblower deputy alleged that the LASD unit in Compton, in South LA, was home to a gang of violent deputies who have violated civilians’ rights and used excessive force.

In an East LA unit of LASD, more than two dozen deputies faced discipline in August for their links to a gang of tattooed officers. A high-ranking official was also reassigned after he said Guardado “chose his fate”. One lawsuit filed last year further accused deputies of fabricating a story and withholding evidence.

The current sheriff, Alex Villanueva, vowed to reform the department when he was elected in 2018, but has repeatedly faced his own scandals and clashed with civil rights groups and other elected officials. He closed internal misconduct investigations before they were concluded, including cases in which officers were accused of domestic violence, sexual assault of prisoners and child abuse.

In an October report, the LA county’s inspector general also accused Villanueva of promoting a “code of silence” regarding the secretive gangs within the agency. Villanueva, who has dismissed criticisms as “politically driven”, has also faced backlash for defying subpoenas and stonewalling the inspector general. Some members of the county board of supervisors have explored the possibility of trying to remove him from office.

In a statement on Friday, Villanueva said he welcomed the investigation and was “eager to get this process started, in the interest of transparency and accountability”, adding, “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.” He said his department would “provide immediate access to all information in our possession”.

The DoJ emphasized that its inquiry was not a criminal investigation, but a civil rights inquiry that aimed to “identify and, as appropriate, ultimately address potentially systemic violations of the constitutional rights of the community at large by a law enforcement agency”.

Becerra is soon stepping down and was recently chosen as president Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Agencies contributed reporting