by Matt Clarke
Newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva held a press conference in late January 2019, claiming that court-ordered reforms in the county’s jail system had caused an increase in violence among its 18,000 prisoners – and that the previous sheriff had covered it up. But experts and court-appointed monitors said he was using faulty statistics in an attempt to undermine the reforms.
A 2011 FBI investigation found L.A. County jail deputies frequently used excessive force, especially against the mentally ill. Affidavits signed by prisoners, civilian monitors and some clergy members testified to unprovoked attacks by the deputies. There was also evidence that deputies encouraged prisoner-on-prisoner attacks to provide a pretext for their own use of force to crack down on the violence.
That investigation led to the convictions of former long-term Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who had covered up the abuse. [See: PLN, June 2017, p.42; April 2013, p.15; March 2013, p.1]. The county ended up paying millions of dollars to former prisoners who suffered injuries from beatings by jail guards.
In 2012, an independent blue-ribbon panel created by the county’s Board of Supervisors found a “persistent pattern of [deputies using] unreasonable force” against prisoners. The panel’s 600-page report recommended hiring an independent inspector general to provide oversight, reforming the complaint-resolution process, more timely discipline for violations of departmental policy and additional video cameras in the jails to verify complaints.
Faced with lawsuits, the sheriff’s department struck separate deals with the ACLU and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to implement jail reforms designed to decrease violence and improve mental health care. The ACLU, DOJ and the lead court-appointed monitor, Richard E. Drooyan, all thought the reforms were working well.
Then Sheriff Villanueva alleged that his predecessor, Jim McDonnell – elected in 2014 and narrowly edged out by Villanueva in 2018 – had falsely claimed violence in the jail system was down when in fact it was up. From 2013 to 2018 – during McDonnell’s term in office – prisoner-on-deputy assaults rose 204% to 544, according to Villanueva, while prisoner-on-prisoner attacks rose 31% to 3,632 and incidents involving significant use of force by deputies increased 99% to 349.
Drooyan, who chaired the blue-ribbon advisory panel, disagreed. He noted that record-keeping was poor prior to the 2015 court settlement – which itself mandated the heightened reporting on which Villanueva relied – so comparisons of pre-settlement statistics to more recent data were inherently inaccurate. For example, a staff member taking a disoriented prisoner by the arm to guide him down a hallway must be reported as a use of force under current requirements, while previously it would not have been reported at all. Likewise, deputies who illicitly beat prisoners were unlikely to report their actions.
“I do not believe that anyone in the Department has intentionally misled me,” said Drooyan, who questioned Villanueva’s findings and asked him to provide documentation of his claims that the former sheriff had covered up jail violence. “Without accurate data to serve as a benchmark, it is not possible to draw any reliable conclusions or comparisons regarding the level of force and violence in the jail during your predecessor’s tenure,” he added.
“Sheriff Villanueva is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” stated McDonnell, who denied any attempt to cover up levels of violence in the jail system.
Villanueva, a former street cop who periodically clashed with his superiors and struggled to be promoted, won his surprise election victory over McDonnell with the backing of the union that represents sheriff’s deputies. He has since vowed to walk back jail reforms, such as reinstating the use of metal flashlights at the jails – specifically banned by the settlement because deputies frequently used them to assault prisoners – as well as establishing a “truth and reconciliation panel” that would rescind the disciplinary firings of 68 deputies.
In December 2018, Sheriff Villanueva reinstated one of his campaign volunteers, deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, who had been terminated in 2016 for domestic abuse against his ex-girlfriend, who is also a deputy, ignoring a decision by the county’s Civil Service Commission that upheld Mandoyan’s discharge. The Board of Supervisors went to court seeking to block Mandoyan’s re-hiring; it also directed the sheriff to stop reinstatement cases of terminated employees.
But in February 2019 the sheriff had reinstated deputy Michael Courtial, who was fired in 2018 for unreasonable force and failing to de-escalate an encounter with a suspect. Mandoyan and Courtial join at least four other deputies re-hired since Villanueva took office.
“Reinstating deputies who have been fired for dishonesty or the excessive use of force is a significant step backwards and sends the wrong message to members of the department responsible for custody operations, many of whom have embraced the reforms that have been implemented and have worked hard to change the staff culture in the jail,” Drooyan warned the sheriff in an April 2019 letter.
“The sheriff just continues with his bullheaded mantra of, ‘Oh, the deputies didn’t get due process,’ and doesn’t give much more than that because there isn’t a good answer for what he’s doing,” said Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, who added that the court-approved jail reforms are at risk.
“What really worries me is he’s sending a message to [the deputies’ union] and Sheriff’s Department employees that you can go back to the bad old days and you can behave the way deputies were behaving before, which was to run the place with brutality and excessive force on a widespread basis,” Eliasberg observed.
Sources: nbclosangeles.com, latimes.com, laist.com
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