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Embattled Los Angeles County Sheriff, Brawling Over Closing Decrepit Jail, Accused of Ignoring Deputy “Gangs”

by Matt Clarke

Forced into a November 2022 runoff by a close primary vote, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva came out swinging at the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) the very next month, defying a subpoena to testify on July 25, 2022, about reports that deputy “gangs” persist in the nation’s largest Sheriff’s department.

Villanueva’s pugilistic style was also on view in April 2022, when he was forced to walk back a suggestion that a Los Angeles Times reporter was under investigation for covering a leaked video showing a deputy kneeling on a restrained detainee’s head. That incident led to a lawsuit from the detainee, Enzo Escalante, plus whistleblower suits from three high-ranking Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) deputies allegedly demoted or fired for calling attention to it: Cmdr. Allen Castellano, former Chief LaJuana Haselrig and former Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon. [See: PLN, May 9, 2022, online.]

Before that, in February 2022, Villanueva announced plans to sue the county’s Board of Supervisors, after they voted in December 2021 to defund the county jail system by $47 million in order to force the closure of the aging and troubled Men’s Central Jail (MCJ), which houses about a third of the county’s 12,100 prisoners.

“They don’t have the legal authority to do this,” Villanueva insisted. “They think by removing the budget from us that we will be forced to close the jail. But every single inmate is there by orders of the court, so the board has no authority to intervene and release them from custody. They are smoking some strong stuff at the Board of Supervisors.”

The board also denied Villanueva’s request for funds to hire outside counsel to sue the board over his department’s budget.

“Like all county department heads, you are responsible for operating the Sheriff’s department within the parameters of a budget,” County Counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva wrote Villanueva. “Your disagreements with the Board regarding budgetary matters is [sic] not a basis for independent outside counsel.”

He also asked Villanueva to “work alongside the Board” to create a “new model of criminal justice policies to offer more effective rehabilitative options and better serve the community.”

Villanueva professed concern for the nearly 600 MCJ prisoners diagnosed with mental illness, saying that closing the jail would keep them from getting mental health care they need. Yet the board pointed to a lengthy history of abuse of mentally ill prisoners at the jail, documented by the FBI, which led to federal court intervention in 2015 and the settlement of a lawsuit to ensure better conditions for mentally ill prisoners—a settlement Villanueva began trying to undermine after his 2018 election, claiming the reforms caused an increase in violence at the jails [See: PLN, June 2019, p. 42.]

Federal court monitors initially reported some improvement in jail conditions, but in a September 2021 report they said progress had “slowed to a halt.” The monitors said LASD “remains out of compliance with the settlement’s main requirements—ensuring that inmates with serious mental illnesses receive regular treatment, out-of-cell time and safe housing.” See: United States v. Cty. of Los Angeles, USDC (C.D. Ca.), Case No. 2:15-cv-05903.

The next month, county commissioners voted for a $461.5 million initiative to divert arrestees from jail and into other programming. Dubbed “Care First, Jails Last,” it led to the board’s vote to defund MCJ and Villanueva’s subsequent promise to sue.

Villanueva, who began his career at LASD in 1986, won its top job by besting former Sheriff Jim McDonald, whom Villanueva accused of failing to clean house after predecessor Lee Baca was brought down in 2014 by an FBI investigation into abuses at the county’s jails from “gangs” of deputies. [See: PLN, June 2017, p.42.]

As Sheriff, Villanueva immediately transferred a captain and 36 deputies known as the “banditos” from the LASD’s East Los Angeles office. Yet COC’s current investigation has turned up testimony that such deputy “gangs” continue to operate in other LASD offices, including a group known as the “Executioners” in the Compton office.

As for closing MCJ, the Sheriff said, “We have homicides, we have people running amok on the streets, everyone’s got a gun, every gangster’s out there trying to shoot other gangsters and the occasional innocent victim, and those people eventually are going to make their way into jail. And there is no place to put them if you tear down [MCJ].”

But Sharon Dolovich, who runs UCLA Law School’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, said when U.S. jail populations declined 25% at the start of the pandemic, it showed “if you stop arresting people for minor crimes, if you release people doing stupid jail time on small misdemeanor offenses ... turns out you can put a lot of downward pressure on the jail population without that much work.”

As he fights to keep his job in this November’s election, Villanueva faces Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, an LASD outsider who also opposes efforts to recall Los Angeles County’s reformist District Attorney, George Gascón. Villanueva is a vocal critic of Gascón, though he admitted in May 2022 that the two have never met. 

Sources: Fox News, LAist, Los Angeles Times

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Related legal case

United States v. Cty. of Los Angeles