California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced Friday he is starting a civil rights investigation to seek to determine whether the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.
The California Department of Justice investigation of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department follows allegations of excessive force, retaliation and other misconduct, as well as several recent reported incidents involving LASD management and personnel.
The action also comes in response to the absence of “sustained and comprehensive oversight” of LASD’s operations, according to Becerra, who said there was no tipping point in prompting the probe. He did not say how far back the investigation would go.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he looked forward to the investigation.
“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 in a Twitter post.
“During my administration, we have routinely requested the State Office of the Attorney General to monitor our investigations, and we will provide immediate access to all information in our possession. We are eager to get this process started, in the interest of transparency and accountability.”
A series of high-profile shootings and allegations of misconduct involving sheriff’s deputies have brought protests from the public and community organizers over the last few years.
In one highly publicized recent case, 18-year-old Andres Guardado was fatally shot five times in the back by a Compton deputy, and the station itself has allegedly been the home of a secret clique of tattooed personnel who dubbed themselves the Executioners.
Under the California Constitution and California Civil Code section 52.3, the attorney general is authorized to conduct civil investigations into whether a law enforcement agency has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating state or federal law.
As opposed to a criminal investigation into an individual incident or incidents, a pattern or practice investigation typically works to identify and, as appropriate, ultimately address potentially systemic violations of the constitutional rights of the community at large by a law enforcement agency.
“Those of us in positions of public trust know that the job comes with the solemn obligation to be accountable to the people we serve,” Becerra said. “Because of the nature of the work involved in law enforcement, that duty of care is heightened.
“There are serious concerns and reports that accountability and adherence to legitimate policing practices have lapsed at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. We are undertaking this investigation to determine if LASD has violated the law or the rights of the people of Los Angeles County.”
Becerra said he has made no determinations about specific complaints or allegations or about the agency’s policies and practices
“We want to put word out to the public” for any useful, credible information that could be provided, Becerra said, adding that the probe is “very broad and wide-ranging.”
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda L. Solis thanked Becerra for beginning what she called “this significant and timely investigation into the LA County Sheriff’s Department.”
“In response and with the community’s support, the Board of Supervisors has not only created the Office of Inspector General and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, but has also continued to utilize all tools available to us, to hold the department accountable for action and inactions against the residents of LA County,” Solis said.
“Yet the OIG and COC continue to face hurdles in their independent investigation. The attorney general’s investigation into whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing in the sheriff’s department is testimony to the sustained work of residents who have continued to uplift concerns of excessive uses of force, including the shootings and killings of their family members, the existence of deputy gangs, and other forms of misconduct.”
The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, which has repeatedly clashed with Villanueva, applauded the announcement of the probe.
“We welcome this important inquiry as a step toward realizing our collective goal of a department that is transparent, accountable and one which operates in a manner consistent with our constitution,” a commission statement reads.
“LASD has the potential to be a beacon for what policing should be — both our community and the men and women who daily place their lives in danger to keep us safe deserve the best. We look forward to providing any assistance needed to the California Department of Justice’s investigation to ensure a full and fair investigation.”
Adam Shea, the attorney representing Guardado’s family, said “it is hard to imagine a more appropriate set of circumstances to give rise for our California Attorney General’s Office to step in and help, not only for the Guardado family, but for all residents and communities served by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who believe that truth and justice matters and who demand accountability from our public officials.”
Andres Kwon, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, also welcomed the announcement.
“We applaud the attorney general for answering the call by grassroots groups and the families of those killed by sheriff’s deputies to launch an investigation into the pattern of unconstitutional policing by Sheriff Villanueva and the LASD,” he said in a statement.
“The investigation should address past and ongoing misconduct, but more remains to be done. The L.A. Board of Supervisors must act to strengthen accountability and transparency of LASD for the future, including by seeking to amend the county charter to give the board the power to impeach and remove sheriffs who violate public trust, obstruct oversight and sanction unconstitutional policing,” he said.
In an October letter urging an investigation, the ACLU SoCal, among other groups, contended that the sheriff’s department under Villanueva, had sought to undermine “basic accountability and civilian oversight at every turn and systematically violating state transparency laws.”
Late last year, a congressional subcommittee asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open a probe of an alleged pattern of abuse by “gangs” of violent LASD deputies.
The AG’s office asked anyone with information relevant to the investigation to contact DOJ’s Civil Rights Enforcement Section at Police-Practices@doj.ca.gov. DOJ attorneys and special agents will consider all relevant information, including from community members and organizations, local officials, oversight entities, the LASD and individual officers.
Last month, following an extensive investigation, Becerra secured an agreement to reform a wide range of practices at the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Last year, following significant misuse, he revoked access to CalGang records created by the Los Angeles Police Department.