One of the county’s chief watchdogs over the Sheriff’s Department warned Tuesday that the department’s defiance of reforms has intensified, pointing to rising in-custody deaths and deputy-involved shootings as evidence.
“Unfortunately, the behavior of the Sheriff’s Department has gotten worse in the last month in terms of the aggressive way in which it has fought back against reform,” Inspector General Max Huntsman told the Board of Supervisors, though he did not offer any specific data to back up the statement.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has characterized Huntsman as a tool of the board determined to discredit the sheriff. The department did not respond to a request for comment on Huntsman’s latest remarks.
The inspector general’s presentation related to events of the quarter ended December 2020, but Huntsman said the numbers showed problems “coming to a head.”
He acknowledged that it is difficult to draw broad conclusions from a small data sample, but said he was troubled by the year-over-year rise in deaths of inmates in custody.
The report offers very little information on the deaths, making it almost impossible to draw comparisons over time, but Huntsman said that even allowing for deaths related to COVID-19, the numbers were higher than 2013 levels.
As a point of reference, Sheriff Lee Baca, later convicted for his role in obstructing an investigation into department corruption, resigned in 2014.
During the last three months of 2020, seven inmates died while in custody. One was a suicide, one was a medical emergency, one inmate was found unresponsive in a cell and the other four cases involved inmates transferred to hospitals for a “higher level of care,” according to the report.
The inspector general also highlighted 11 deputy-involved shootings during the fourth quarter as additional cause for concern. Seven people were struck by gunfire and six died as a result.
Those summaries were based on preliminary information from the department that the OIG was unable to verify. They included the widely-reported case of Nicholas Burgos Jr., 38, who was shot by a deputy at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center after smashing equipment in an apparent rage and then trying to force his way into another patient’s room.
All but one of the other fatalities involved a suspect that deputies said was armed with a gun. One of two men killed in a single incident may have been shot by someone other than deputies, according to the preliminary department report.
One of the more notable things about the report was the number of shootings in which no video was available from body-worn cameras. In several cases, that was because cameras had not yet been rolled out to all deputies, but in at least one, a deputy failed to activate his camera.
Supervisor Holly Mitchell asked what could be done to ensure that deputies follow policy on cameras seen as critical to determining the truth of any incident.
Huntsman told her, “It’s a very complex issue” and said he thought it would be premature to begin disciplining deputies who are just getting used to the cameras for not remembering to turn them on.
“They need clear policy and clear direction, and they need to practice,” he said.
Huntsman’s concerns were raised on the same day that the Sheriff’s Department highlighted to the board how it has delivered on one major reform: Villanueva’s promise to end transfers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement absent a criminal warrant signed by a judge.
Sheriff’s Capt. Brendan Corbett told the board that ICE submitted 983 requests in 2020 to detain inmates for transfer upon their release from county jail.
Eighty percent of those inmates didn’t qualify for transfer based on state law or LASD policy. Of the remaining 128, 43 inmates were transferred to ICE, according to the LASD summary.
That number represents less than one-tenth of the number of transfers made in the prior year, and reflects a moratorium on transfers for civil immigration enforcement instituted by Villanueva in April and made permanent in August.
Villanueva did not attend the board’s virtual meeting, but took to Twitter Tuesday afternoon to highlight the report.
“As Sheriff, I am responsible for EVERYONE’S public safety, and I will not allow an entire segment of the population to be afraid to report crimes to law enforcement,” Villanueva wrote.
He said the department had also ended a past practice of selling data on undocumented inmates.