Oversight panel to subpoena Sheriff Alex Villanueva for testimony on coronavirus in jails

Alene Tchekmedyian
A civilian oversight panel voted to issue a subpoena to L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.  (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission voted Thursday to subpoena L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to appear at its next meeting to discuss his handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the jails, marking the first use of a powerful new oversight tool.

"I think it's outrageous that the sheriff isn't here to answer questions about what's going on in the jails," said Commissioner Priscilla Ocen, who suggested that inmates are being housed in conditions that increase their vulnerability to contracting the virus.

The unanimous vote came after the Sheriff's Department declined the panel's request that Villanueva or a senior official attend Thursday's virtual meeting, which was streamed live, to discuss his proposal to close two patrol stations and cut other services to reduce the department's budget deficit. Neither he nor a representative showed up.

In March, voters overwhelmingly approved Measure R, handing the commission direct authority to issue subpoenas to investigate conduct within the Sheriff's Department.

It's unclear whether Villanueva plans to comply with the subpoena.

In a statement, the Sheriff's Department said, “We have not received one as of this statement and have absolutely no details as to what they are requesting. Furthermore, any subpoena served to LASD would be processed by county counsel as this may affect current pending litigation.”

The panel is seeking testimony about the sheriff's policies and handling of the virus outbreak in the jails, where the number of inmate infections has more than doubled in a week. As of Thursday, 248 inmates had tested positive for the virus, up from 115 on April 30. Officials, however, are conducting more testing, including of all new bookings.

Inspector General Max Huntsman pointed to The Times' reporting on one dorm at Men's Central Jail where 100 people are housed in bunks that are three feet apart and said he's received complaints of bottlenecks in testing inmates with symptoms. He said 43 of the people in that dorm appeared eligible for release.

"The idea that I think has been expressed by the Sheriff's Department that if we tell people to sleep head to toe, that takes care of the problem. It does not," Huntsman said. "Because in a triple bunk somebody's head is lined up with somebody's head and they're three feet apart and somebody is above somebody and they're coughing. So, at the end of the day, this is going to transmit the virus if somebody is ill."

Villanueva has significantly reduced the jail population in response to the pandemic. As of Thursday, the jails, which typically house 17,000 people, held 11,837 inmates, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Some critics contend that L.A. County has not done enough. A recent class-action lawsuit claims that inmates are not being tested even when they show symptoms and lack sufficient space for physical distancing. The lawsuit claims inmates don’t have enough soap or a safe way to dry their hands.