L.A. County Jails: Leading in All the Wrong Ways
by Benjamin Tschirhart
Calling conditions in Los Angeles County jails “abhorrent,” attorneys representing a group of incarcerated plaintiffs appeared before a federal judge on April 19, 2023, asking him to hold the county in contempt of a recently granted injunction. That was after three detainee deaths in just nine days in March 2023 brought the total since the beginning of the previous year to 52. In 2021, the county Sheriff’s Department (LASD) recorded an all-time high of 59 jail deaths.
The federal court for the Central District of California granted the preliminary injunction on September 27, 2022, to relieve “barbaric” conditions in the jail: Detainees are routinely forced to sleep on concrete floors soiled with human waste, with no shower or even a toothbrush, and nothing to eat but peanut butter sandwiches. After the contempt motion, Judge Dean D. Pregerson, who toured the jail and called it “horrible,” will hold another hearing in 60 days.
Of several cases against the county before the Court, this one is the oldest, originally filed in December 1975. Clearly, those conditions that prompted the recent injunction haven’t improved much in 45 years, since the original plaintiffs secured an order from the Court that cited Stewart v. Gates, 450 F. Supp. 583 (C.D.Cal.1978): “If the public, through its judicial and penal system, finds it necessary to incarcerate a person, basic concepts of decency, as well as reasonable respect for constitutional rights, require that he be provided a bed.” See: Rutherford v. Pitchess, 457 F. Supp. 104 (C.D. Cal. 1978).
LASD jails today hold about three times as many detainees as then: 14,600 men and women on any given day. With 60,000 annual bookings and as many releases, nearly 120,000 people cycle through the doors each year. In addition to the Rutherford suit, the county is still under a 2015 settlement agreement to address complaints by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) about substandard mental health care and use of excessive force at county lockups. See: USA v. Cty. of Los Angeles, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:15-cv-05903. So attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, who are representing Plaintiffs in this nearly 50-year-old case, could have had an uphill battle arguing that jail conditions required immediate judicial action to protect prisoners from harm.
Sadly, conditions are so bad that they made Plaintiffs’ argument for them. When Judge Pregerson granted the preliminary injunction in September 2022, he not only reminded LASD of that ancient order to provide every detainee a mattress; he also erected several important curbs on what LASD can do in its jails.
Under the injunction’s terms, LASD can hold no one for more than 24 hours at its Inmate Reception Center (IRC) – the jail’s intake center, where mattresses exist only on clinic beds. No getting around that by holding people in the clinic, either; the limit there is 8 hours. And no more than 12 hours may be spent inside an IRC holding cell, whose puny dimensions were excused by the Court 45 years ago solely because detainees were not supposed to remain locked inside without recreation breaks
In addition, the Court ruled that occupancy may not exceed the capacity established by the Board of State and Community Corrections. In 2021, the year before the ruling, the jail population was running about 118% of that number.
Nor can anyone be held at the IRC clinic’s “Front Bench” in handcuffs, chains or tethered to a chair for more than four hours. A 2019 report by the county’s own watchdog noted that those “at risk of or exhibiting acute mental health distress are tethered with …handcuffs to fixed chairs for the duration of the intake process,” some “for more than 16 hours.”
In addition, no one may be held in the IRC clinical area, cage, or any cell when the location is unsanitary or lacking access to water and sufficient garbage receptacles. Plus every detainee held there must have ongoing access to adequate medical and mental health care. See: Rutherford v. Villanueva, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 221543 (C.D. Cal.)
The injunction was preliminary, so it would have expired after six months. But the Court extended it another six months on March 14, 2023. See: Rutherford v. Block, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:75-cv-04111.
Thisreport is about the jails in Los Angeles County, but the problems are not limited to one jail or even one jail system. Like any big urban county in the U.S, Los Angeles holds up a mirror to the rest of the nation. What makes this one unique, as artist Barbara Kruger put it, is that “[i]f most American cities are about the consumption of culture, Los Angeles [is] about the production of culture – not only national culture but global culture.” And the byproduct of that production process is the manufacture and tolerance of mass incarceration.
“A Bad Future”
LASD’s website maintains a department history both succinct and glowing. Its triumphs are prominently displayed; more shameful episodes are blithely omitted. It recounts the earliest history of the department during a time when “severe verdicts were the rule” and “lynch law struck terror in the heart of the evil doers.” It’s a breathless historical account, one that recalls the old days a little too fondly, perhaps, given that the sheriff and his deputies are sworn to uphold the Constitution — not lynch law.
The earliest incarnation of LASD was the “Los Angeles Rangers,” a posse formed in the mid-1800s to support the county’s first sheriff, George Burrill, and his two deputies. Since then, LASD has been the setting for history-making events like the 1912 swearing-in of Margaret Q. Adams, the first female deputy in the US. Since the 1990s, while building the various substations, jails, training centers and other facilities which house a modern-day jail system, the county population has mushroomed to more than 10 million residents, who receive “direct law enforcement” from nearly 10,000 sworn personnel and a similar number of civilian employees of LASD, making it the largest Sheriff’s Department in the U.S.
According to new Sheriff Robert Luna’s executive summary for 2022, his department arrests and incarcerates more people every year – 59,783 were booked into the jail system in 2022 – than the entire population of more than 70% of U.S. counties. But LASD is also known for its staggering level of corruption, and its jails for their violence, sexual abuse and criminalization of mental illness. Department substations are notorious for housing at least 18 known gangs composed of LASD deputies themselves. [See: PLN, Sep. 2022, p.59.] These “deputy gangs” have tattoos and symbols, often requiring aspiring members to assault or kill a civilian in order to earn membership. [See: PLN, Apr. 2013, p.15.]
Growing scrutiny has centered around the criminalization and mistreatment of the mentally ill, as well as those with STDs and other communicable diseases. As part of its eight-year-old settlement agreement with DOJ, the county was ordered to bring the LASD jail system into substantial compliance in December 2022; it is currently conducting a study of mental illness, with initiatives to implement screening for bipolar disorder and offer vaccines for infectious diseases.
Like it or hate it, what happens in the City of Angels often impacts everyone, sooner or later. From music to film, American culture is the country’s biggest export, and much of that culture has its origin in L.A. That’s not just descriptive; it’s also predictive. As novelist Henry Miller said “Los Angeles gives one the feeling of the future more strongly than any city I know of. A bad future, too, like something out of Fritz Lang’s feeble imagination.”
A New Sheriff in Town
The most recent version of that bad future was ushered in by LASD’s most recently departed chief, former Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Though he campaigned on a platform of progressive reform, promising to eliminate corruption and cronyism, his tenure was distinguished by conservative stunts and corruption allegations, along with intransigence in the face of calls for reform. He even sued the county to protect what he knew about LASD’s “deputy gangs.”
The county’s 33rd sheriff, Villanueva was the first candidate for the office to unseat an incumbent in over 100 years. After his election in 2018, just four years passed until the next candidate unseated an incumbent, when Villanueva lost his re-election bid to Robert Luna in November 2022.
While in office, Villanueva showed a degree of originality in the contempt he displayed toward the county Board of Supervisors. For example, during a conflict over whether to close the aging and decrepit Men’s Central Jail, the Board voted to defund LASD by $47 million in order to force the jail’s closure. In response, Villanueva threatened to sue and then requested funds from the Board to fund the suit (his request was rebuffed). Showing that he doesn’t lack a perverse sense of humor, the sheriff suggested that his concern was really for the 600 prisoners at the jail diagnosed with mental illness, alleging that the jail’s closure would prevent them from receiving the mental health care they needed!
Villanueva could also take his grudges to a personal level. LASD Lt. Joseph Garrido said he got a glimpse of this when he made a donation to one of the sheriff’s political challengers and called out K-9 handlers for letting a dog die in a hot squad car. Garrido claimed he was then targeted in a bogus criminal probe into alleged misuse of his department vehicle. Garrido’s attorney said the probe was an attempt to destroy his reputation for exercising his right to free speech. Garrido even confronted the co-worker carrying out the investigation, Sgt. William Morris, and asked whether he was being targeted because of the “Vera for Sheriff” sign in Garrido’s front yard. “Probably so,” replied Morris. Garrido’s resulting lawsuit is one of about two dozen ongoing whistleblower claims against the former sheriff and LASD which have resulted from Villanueva’s “unique” management style. Garrido is represented by Los Angeles attorneys Michael A. Miller and Vincent Miller. See: Garrido v. Cty. of Los Angeles, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:23-cv-00011.
Critics also pointed to Villanueva’s resemblance to former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was accused of running a “pay-to-play” promotional system in LASD that included rigged exams, favoritism, nepotistic promotions and criminal conspiracy – all to ensure that the deputy ranks were filled with people loyal to him, more so than to the law or to the county citizens. Convicted of a conspiracy to obstruct justice, Tanaka was sentenced to a five-year prison term in 2016. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.34.]
Villanueva ran on a campaign platform explicitly eschewing such corruption, but he then oversaw a blatantly criminal program to promote favored employees with rigged exams and falsified timecards, according to another whistleblower suit filed by LASD Sgt. Rosa Gonzalez. The county Board of Supervisors had earlier approved a $1 million settlement in 2019 for her claims she was sexually harassed by deputies who belonged to the “Banditos” gang. See: Gonzalez v. Cty. of Los Angeles, Cal. Super. (Cty. of Los Angeles), Case No. BC 591-056. So when Gonzalez reported the promotion exam corruption, she claims, fellow deputies retaliated by creating such a hostile work environment that she was driven onto medical leave. Her new case is still pending. See: Gonzalez v. Cty. of Los Angeles, Cal. Super. (Cty. of Los Angeles), Case No. 22STCV03098.
In a resolution passed in September 2022, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) described a “political stunt” pulled by Villanueva in retaliation for the scrutiny he received from county officials who were “vocal critics of the sheriff and LASD’s actions.” Deputies executed search warrants on the homes of Commissioner Patty Giggins and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl “in an attempt to besmirch their reputation and embarrass them in the press,” COC found. Villanueva also posted on his campaign Instagram account “a picture of Supervisor Keuhl being escorted from her home by deputies.” Even the District Attorney flatly accused Villanueva of bad faith actions targeting his political enemies.
That resolution followed one of no confidence in the sheriff issued by COC in October 2020 for “a pattern of problematic actions, including hiring deputies fired for misconduct and domestic violence; denying the existence of deputy gangs; blocking efforts to ensure independent oversight of deputy shooting investigations; violating the First Amendment rights of the public, including journalists; mishandling the investigation and ordering destruction of evidence…using racist and sexist slurs against elected officials; and flouting numerous commission subpoenas.”
It is small wonder that Villanueva ended up in PLN’s list of “The 10 Worst Sheriffs in America.” See: [PLN, June 2021, p.1.]
Deputies engaging in misconduct affect more people besides their immediate victims. In September 2022, for example, two deputies were relieved of duty after it was revealed that LASD was investigating a “pay-to-play” scheme in which they allegedly falsified applications for state concealed-carry weapons permits – potentially endangering the public and also shoving thousands of qualified applicants farther back in line. That investigation was turned over to state prosecutors in March 2023.
A whistleblower suit filed in 2022 by LASD Sgt. Vanessa Chow accused former Sheriff Villanueva of “acts of corruption” that she reportedly witnessed from her vantage point as liaison to the county Board of Supervisors. Privy to budget negotiations between the Sheriff and the Board, she allegedly encountered numerous examples of dishonesty and corruption during the process, including a conspiracy by the Sheriff and his staff to “strong arm [supervisors] into increasing the budget” by pretending to close or discontinue LASD substations and programs which were important to Supervisors’ constituents. Chow’s efforts to expose the wrongdoing led to her persecution, until she was ultimately “constructively terminated from LASD.” The ordeal also allegedly left her suffering “severe medical conditions, including temporary lower body paralysis” while also battling cancer. See: Chow v. Cty. of Los Angeles, Cal. Super. (Cty. of Los Angeles), Case No. 22STCV28100.
By the end of 2022, the Board of Supervisors had approved $47.6 million in payouts to settle various LASD misconduct cases over the previous two years. That was on top of an aggregate price tag totaling $550 million for 2012-2020.
These cases involved a number of in-custody deaths, which reached a peak in 2021 when 59 Los Angelenos never made it home from jail. Nine of those were ruled a homicide. But with a close working relationship between deputies and medical examiners from the county coroner’s office, that number may be low. A recent study of the county’s jail deaths found that over half of those whose death was attributed to “natural causes” left behind corpses marked by evidence of physical assault and harm – suggesting the true number of homicides is far higher. [See: PLN, Jan. 2023, p.52.]
When the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), PLN’s publisher, made a request in 2021 for public records regarding misconduct allegations and lawsuits, LASD flatly refused, calling the request “overly broad and burdensome.” This stood in contrast to then-Sheriff Villanueva’s public statements in support of disclosure of police misconduct records. The lawsuit is still ongoing, but it has so far secured records pertaining to hundreds of LASD misconduct claims and lawsuits, alleging everything from excessive force to sexual assault and wrongful death. See: Human Rights Def. Ctr. v. Cty. of Los Angeles, Cal. Super. (Cty. of Los Angeles), Case No. 21STCP01342.
Gangs in Green Uniforms
In an area plagued with gang violence, law enforcement in Los Angeles County is charged with combating the predations of organized crime. At least, in theory. In practice, LASD has reportedly adopted the culture and many of the practices of the gangs it purports to fight. According to multiple court cases, media reports and exposés, there are at least 18 distinct gangs made up of deputies operating within the LASD. The roster includes such colorful names as the “Cavemen,” “Executioners,” “Vikings,” “Grim Reapers” and even the “3000 Boys,” who are named after their duty assignment on the third floor of the Men’s Central Jail.
The Cavemen was the first group to become widely known, after the Los Angeles Times reported the gang’s existence in 1991. The report noted that some deputies involved in the group had tattoos of a cartoonish-looking neanderthal with flies buzzing around his head – each one symbolizing an act of violence against civilians. Undersheriff Tim Murakami was a member; when he worked at the East L.A. station, he said, “We were all Cavemen.”
Disgraced former Undersheriff Tanaka was a tattooed member of the Lynnwood Vikings, which prospered in the city of the same name under his admonition to “work in the gray area.” His subordinates understood that to mean bending the law to achieve their aims.
In 1990, a young Anietra Haley was taking part in LASD’s Explorer youth program at Lynnwood Station, when she overheard deputies planning an assassination. Lloyd Polk, a local gang member, was then the victim of a drive-by shooting in front of his house. After that, Haley said, a deputy “came around the corner with his [squad car] lights off and just sat there.”
When Haley matched what she had overheard with the killing, she took her suspicion to the FBI. But the FBI agent who cultivated Haley as a source also sexually harassed her, compromising attempts to gather information on the criminal activity of the Lynnwood Vikings. Apparently hung out to dry by the FBI, Haley ultimately copped a plea to providing false information in exchange for a probated sentence.
The Regulators are another group of mostly Latin deputies who originally banded together in Century Station. By 2005, the gang had spread to other stations, too. Other deputies accused them of extortion and intimidation to influence roster assignments. One fought back – and won. Deputy Angel Jaimes sued the county, claiming Black supervisors discriminated against him for being a member of what they nicknamed “the Mexican Mafia.” Not only did he admit to Regulator membership, Jaimes reportedly accepted a $1.1 million settlement in 2008. He also kept his job until his apparent retirement in 2017.
The official line, whenever these gangs enter the public eye, is that they are simply associates – fellow deputies proud of their jobs and their performance. The tattoos? Those just commemorate their efforts to save lives, they say. Former Sheriff Villanueva compared deputy tattoos to groups of nurses who got tattoos to commemorate their efforts fighting COVID-19. Of course, the nurses’ ink usually features EKG lines and hearts, while the deputies’ tattoos almost invariably sport skulls. According to several accounts, these are earned, just like their gangland counterparts, through violence against non-gang members in a tradition called “chasing ink.”
There is also a conspicuous pattern that emerges from numerous public comments about individual LASD substations published in the OIG Reform and Oversight reports. Most stations show roughly equivalent numbers of commendations and complaints. At a few, commendations even outnumber complaints. But at certain stations, this ratio is inverted, by a wide margin.
For the fourth quarter of 2022, Century Station’s ratio of complaints to commendations is 2:1. The same in East L.A. Even higher in Industry Station. Each of these stations is also known to be controlled by a deputy gang. Though perhaps circumstantial evidence, this certainly casts doubt on the claim that these groups are simply high performing teams of deputies who are proud of their work.
“Don’t go to East Los Angeles Station,” Rosa Gonzalez recalls she was told as a young deputy by coworkers. When she went anyway, they told her: “Just pay attention. You’ll find out who’s really in charge.” According to court documents, those “really in charge” were the Banditos, the deputy gang that controlled the station and counts former Sheriff Villanueva among its members. Despite his rhetoric, Villanueva was known to be extremely friendly with “shot callers” of various deputy gangs, though he reportedly favored the Banditos, of course.
This gang history within LASD goes back to the 1970s and has been well-documented in news reports, exposés, lawsuits and even biographical books. The problem is also extremely costly. A March 2023 COC report said the extralegal activities of deputy gangs had cost county taxpayers some $55 million in lawsuit payouts. Incoming Sheriff Robert Luna has vowed to “change LASD’s culture to ensure that gangs do not resurface in the future.” But Los Angelenos have heard those promises before.
When Gonzalez refused to “submit” to the Banditos and their “program,” she was first ostracized and then drummed out of the station and her job, according to her lawsuit. As the leader of an organization plagued by gang infiltration, Villanueva was subpoenaed to testify regarding his knowledge of deputy gangs under his command. But instead of cooperating, he sued, also threatening to disclose information regarding county officials involved in felonies.
Hopes have been raised since Sheriff Luna announced the formation of a new Office of Constitutional Policing in LASD on February 15, 2023. One of its missions is to root out the “deputy gangs.” Appointed to helm the new office was Eileen Decker, a former federal prosecutor who was a co-chair of the new sheriff’s successful electoral campaign.
A New York University graduate with a masters from the Naval Postgrad School, Decker held a fellowship at Harvard Law School before serving as U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. She most recently worked for the City of Los Angeles as Vice-President of the Police Commission.
Decker’s acceptance speech displayed all the polish her resume would indicate, expressing gratitude for the appointment and eagerness to begin work. The county’s citizens should hope such aplomb does not mask any unwillingness to upset the status quo. She’ll need to draw on her experience as a prosecutor to combat criminal activity still rampant within LASD.
Judge, Jury & Executioners
In 1997, the 1033 Program was instituted by Congress, allowing U.S. law enforcement to receive and use military equipment in the catastrophic “War on Drugs.” Following passage of the Patriot Act in the early 2000s, the militarization of local law enforcement ramped up, perfectly illustrated by many departments’ adoption and use of the “thin blue line” flag: an American flag with a blue line running across the center. Developed for troops in the country’s disastrous interventions in the Middle East, its use by law enforcement is perhaps prophetic. But it also sends the public a message: We are at war, and you are the enemy.
Nowhere is that clearer than in LASD’s East L.A. station. It’s called ‘Fort Apache’ within the department, in reference to a 1948 John Ford western where U.S. cavalrymen fend off savage natives. Deputies at the station have adopted their own “Fort Apache” emblem – a helmet covering a boot, emblazoned with the motto “Siempre una patada en los pantalones.” Or in English, “always a kick in the pants.”
There is no federal requirement for law enforcement agencies to self-report fatal encounters with the public they serve, although some voluntarily report such statistics. Even then it’s not always clear whether those numbers are accurate. While a shooting in public is simple to attribute, blame for a death in a jail cell can’t be so easily placed. And when we can’t know accurately how many people died in custody or why, discerning the true facts leading to those deaths is even more difficult.
In every year since 2018, LASD has reported over 30 in-custody deaths. But it is difficult to say for certain that the numbers are right. After the Los Angeles Times questioned inconsistencies in LASD statistics, the county Office of the Inspector (OIG) reported in August 2017 that “they themselves said they didn’t believe their own data.”
“[If they can’t tell us what’s going on in their own department,” said Inspector General Max Huntsman, “then we can’t assess them.”
OIG publishes a quarterly report of its activities monitoring LASD. That report, Reform and Oversight Efforts: Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, gives more detailed data on deputy-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. While it does not provide the names of deputy-involved-shooting victims before 2023, it does give detailed accounts of the location and what actions deputies took, as well as a review of what to consider in future incidents.
In-custody deaths are not covered with the same amount of detail, however. That section of the quarterly reports gives a total of deaths for the three-month period, where the death occurred, whether in a jail or hospital, along with a brief note about the cause of death. Many of the deaths occurred during transport to a hospital for a “higher level of care.” Suicides are noted, as are medical emergencies and whenever a “decedent [was] found unresponsive” in some area of the jail, usually his cell.
In 2022, OIG’s quarterly reports gave official notice that 42 individuals died in custody from January to December. For each of three of the quarterly periods, 11 detainees died. In one period, from July to September, nine individuals held in custody died. Medical examiner’s records show autopsies are not finished in roughly a third of the cases from 2022.
When California Assembly Bill 2761 took effect on January 1, 2023, it imposed additional reporting requirements on state law enforcement agencies for deaths in custody. In compliance with the new law, LASD began reporting in-custody deaths in January 2023 on its website. The department states that “it hopes the information provided sheds light on the number of In-Custody Deaths in LASD Jail facilities and demonstrates its ongoing commitment to transparency.”
The following list of in-custody deaths was compiled from the January to March 2023 report on the LASD website and the Los Angeles County Department of the Medical Examiner-Coroner website. Names are not given in LASD in-custody death information, but information from the Medical Examiner-Coroner website allowed PLN to find some of the missing names.
January 10, 2023 – Massimo Barbagallo, 49, committed suicide at North County Correctional Facility (Case Number: 2023-00419).
January 11, 2023 – Salvador Hernandez, 33, died in a manner and of a cause not yet determined in Men’s Central Jail (Case Number: 2023-00479).
January 19, 2023 – Daniel Gaustad, 58, died in a hospital, where he had been transferred for a higher level of care from Twin Towers Correctional Facility; his manner and cause of death are not yet determined (Case Number: 2023-00779).
February 15, 2023 – Billy Richardson, 76, died of a spinal injury after booking into the jail ward at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center; the injury has so far been determined accidental (Case Number: 2023-01855).
March 15, 2023 – Unnamed man, 60, died in a manner and of a cause not yet determined in the jail ward at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center (Case Number: N/A).
March 18, 2023 – Unnamed man, 61, died in a manner and of a cause not yet determined in the jail ward at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center (Case Number: N/A).
March 23, 2023 – Samuel Mark II, 29, died in Men’s Central Jail in a manner and of a cause not yet determined (Case Number: 2023-03187).
According to the Los Angeles Times, Samuel Mark died three days after he was arrested and booked into the jail on a misdemeanor charge of check fraud and theft. Like all the others who died in March 2023, he had had not been convicted and sentenced to the jail for a crime.
Senior ACLU of Southern California attorney Melissa Camacho warned, “We’re going to continue to see people dying because the jails are operating 20 percent over capacity. There are just too many people there … to provide adequate medical care and treatment.”
The County Watchdog’s reports for 2022 also contain telling statistics on “use of force” incidents and institutional violence within county jails. According to these reports, there have been 147 use-of-force incidents per month on average since the first quarter of 2018; the highest number in one period was 592 incidents during the second quarter of 2018.
More easily found than information on LASD in-custody deaths are public cries for justice when deputies kill county citizens – like one made by Yesenia Paredes on Facebook in 2018, begging for help seeking justice for her brother Rufino, who was arrested while attempting to steal a car in 2018. Even though the car’s owner refused to press charges, deputies arrested him. They also allegedly ignored his mother’s requests to take him for mental health care.
Instead he was booked into the City of Industry Sheriff’s Station, where he killed himself with a bedsheet he shouldn’t have been given. His mother wasn’t told before she showed up for his court appearance. Even then deputies let her wait almost eight hours before telling her that her son was dead, according to the lawsuit she filed. The county settled that for $1.9 million in August 2022, part of nearly $50 million in payouts for LASD misconduct in just four deaths between July 2019 and February 2022. [See: PLN, Apr. 2023, p.24.]
Before the Court
Courts are the theaters where struggles often play out between LASD and the citizens its deputies are sworn to serve. Court records indicate that legal fees, settlements and court judgements arising from misconduct cases against LASD have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in just the past few years. But the department’s legal troubles go back further.
The cases, complaints and suits against LASD, the county, its sheriff and deputies are too numerous to list all of them here. We can discuss only a few of the more notable. Plaintiffs have included those whose rights were violated or their surviving families – even the federal government itself, as in the DOJ case whose settlement is ongoing.
In 1996, DOJ opened its investigation into the LASD jail system and its treatment of detainees suffering mental health issues. Proceeding under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. §1997, et seq., DOJ then issued a findings letter that alleged the mental health care provided by LASD violated the rights of detainees and prisoners at the jail. In 2015, after more than five years of investigation, negotiations and site visits, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed by DOJ and former Sheriff Jim McDonnell to institute a series of reforms “to ensure that adequate and reasonable mental health care services are provided at Jails.” [See: PLN, Mar. 2016, p.1.]
This settlement included eight hours of yearly training for jail staff on recognizing and working with mentally ill prisoners. Its effectiveness has been questionable, given cases like that of Paredes. But LASD mistreatment of the mentally ill is not confined to its jail system.
Timothy Neal was shot in the back during a schizophrenic episode in 2019 by deputies – who claimed he was running toward them! – leading to a reported $16.5 million settlement. See: Neal v. Cty. of Los Angeles, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:20-cv-06315.
Pedro Lopez was not even involved with deputies pursuing a carjacking suspect when he lost his life in 2022. As they opened fire on a suspect in the yard of Lopez’s home, he was struck and killed. This careless use of deadly force cost taxpayers $5 million. See: Claim of Est. of Lopez, Cty. of Los Angles, CRM No. 22-4391747*001.
Perhaps equally telling are the employee complaints which arise from the internal workings of the department. Lawsuits brought against LASD by deputies like Garrido and Gonzalez tell a story which would otherwise remain obscured.
Another employee, Cynthia Gallegos, supported her supervisor, Eli Vera, when he opposed Villanueva in the 2022 primary election. Gallegos was then denied a promotion to a senior secretary position, allegedly in retaliation for her disloyalty to the chief. She has reportedly filed a claim seeking at least $4 million in damages.
In April 2022, after video was leaked showing a deputy kneeling on the head of restrained detainee Enzo Escalante the previous year, Escalante filed suit – along with three high-ranking LASD employees allegedly demoted or fired for calling attention to it: Cmdr. Allen Castellano, former Chief LaJuana Haselrig and former Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon. Villanueva went on the offensive, seeming to threaten the Los Angeles Times reporter who broke the story with arrest – before he was forced to walk that back at another contentious press conference. [See: PLN, May 9, 2022, online; and Sep. 2022, p.58.]
Then there are numerous lawsuits by watchdog groups and advocacy organizations, including HRDC. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law also accused LASD of failure to respond to requests for public records in a lawsuit reportedly settled for $185,000 in 2022. See: Brennan Ctr. for Justice at N.Y. Univ. Sch. of Law, Cal. Super. (Cty. of Los Angeles), Case No. 20STCP03820.
The Old and the New
After the contentious reign of Villanueva, Los Angeles County citizens may feel cautious optimism about incoming Sheriff Luna, who took office on December 8, 2022. His announced priorities include reducing violent crime and property crime, as well as addressing the county’s ballooning homelessness problem. Luna also wants to modernize LASD and its jails, improve wellness for deputies and other employees, as well as restoring trust in the office of Sheriff.
Outgoing Sheriff Villanueva had a ready explanation to press inquiries about the election outcome. He laid the blame for his loss on a “sweeping misinformation campaign” by his enemies, who employed “false narratives” regarding deputy gangs, as well as resistance to his oversight, on top of harassment and retaliation for his defense of LASD against whistleblowers. No hint of irony was apparent in these statements; whatever else may be said about him, Alex Villanueva is undeniably consistent.
While preparing to take the helm of LASD, Luna announced a transition team that he said would “build a foundation” for his tenure as sheriff. He went on to declare his intent to deliver services that are “effective, respectful, and constitutional.”
Luna also promised to fight and finally root out the deputy gangs which have operated in LASD for almost 50 years. During his campaign he pledged to “change LASD’s culture to ensure that gangs do not resurface in the future.” If he manages to deliver on even some of these promises, it will make an enormous difference in the relationship between the county’s people and their primary law enforcement agency.
The optimistic promises of Luna — a 36-year veteran of the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD), who became its chief in 2014 — should be welcome to the residents of Los Angeles County who have had their fill of Villanueva and his thuggish approach to law enforcement administration. According to public statements, he intends to repair relations with the county Board of Supervisors and the Civilian Oversight Commission, vowing a “180-degree difference” from Villanueva’s stubbornness.
But a certain amount of cynical reservation might be appropriate, considering Villanueva also campaigned on such progressive reform promises.
Certain aspects of Luna’s track record are also cause for concern. Under his watch, an LBPD cop shot journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez with a less-lethal round in 2020 while he was on assignment. Yet the department concluded the shooting was within policy. After the incident, Luna told the reporter: “It looks like you were inadvertently hit with a round that ricocheted either off something or somebody.” But he quickly added, “We will never know which one of those [officers] fired the round.”
One good-faith gesture Luna could make would be to comply with the admonition of the Civilian Oversight Committee and disband the LASD Public Corruption unit. Colloquially known as the “secret police,” it currently investigates departmental corruption, with obviously poor results. Better would be to allow an independent outside agency to conduct transparent and objective inquiries “without a conflict of interest,” as COC has said.
Perhaps the most obvious opportunity for improvement available to Luna lies in demonstrating a more truthful and timely response to information requests made to the department. Villanueva was known for responding to these requests with demonstrably false claims; in 2019 he said that every request was fulfilled, when in fact OIG pointed out that “2019 was the year in which the sheriff’s department began aggressively refusing to fulfill information requests.” It seems that his administration counted a request refusal as a fulfillment for record keeping purposes — extreme doublespeak even for seasoned bureaucrats.
Given LASD’s recent troubles, it would be difficult for Luna to make no improvements at all. But institutional culture can exert a powerful inertial influence. It’s unlikely that no change will happen; the big question is, in which direction will it head? In a moment of catalytic volatility and rapid social shift, we are more aware than ever of the ways law enforcement often betrays us, gorging on monstrous budgets, providing in return little more than naïve jingoism and unwarranted physical abuse. Often their demeanor is one of swaggering contempt, like that of an occupying army; certainly, with the weaponry we have given them, they have no reason to think differently. The time has come to insist they begin to serve the people who employ them.
Otherwise, in another 50 years, we’ll still have lawyers arguing in court over whether or not every detainee in the Los Angeles County jail needs something as basic as a bed.
Additional sources: 2UrbanGirls, Antelope Valley Times, Beacon Media News, CBS News, Cal State University Times, KABC, KnockLA, LAist, Los Angeles Times, NPR, New York Times, New Yorker, Spectrum News, Washington Post, WitnessLA
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