The head of the county’s lead investigative watchdog told county officials Tuesday that the Sheriff’s Department is adopting a “bunker mentality” and warned of a “Tanaka-level crisis.”
Paul Tanaka was former Sheriff Lee Baca’s undersheriff, and both men were convicted of obstruction of justice related to their efforts to stymie an FBI probe into deputy-on-inmate jail violence. Tanaka was widely seen as fostering a culture that sanctioned that violence and protected deputies at all costs.
The comments from Inspector General Max Huntsman came during a discussion on granting subpoena power to his office in order to expand an investigation of cliques or gangs of tattooed deputies suspected of racism, sexism and violence.
“I was hired in part to tell you if we ever faced a Tanaka-level of crisis again. We face it now,” Huntsman told the Board of Supervisors. “If we don’t want to simply stand by and watch, we’ll need a stronger ordinance, one that rejects secrecy and has strong mechanisms for enforcement.”
The IG said Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who defeated incumbent Jim McDonnell in November, was not responsible for the proliferation of secret societies among deputies, because every deputy now in the force joined when the cliques were already in place.
However, like his predecessors, Villanueva has chosen to rebuff investigations and made no real effort to root out these groups, according to Huntsman.
“(Former Sheriff) Sherman Block set a code of silence in place … (and) this blueprint has been followed ever since,” Huntsman said, citing Baca’s refusal to investigate his command staff and McDonnell’s unwillingness to do anything other than discipline individual deputies.
“Instead of reforming, (Villanueva) has advocated a Fort Apache, bunker mentality,” Huntsman said, referring to a logo on the East Los Angeles Station door inspired by a 1948 movie about a U.S. Army outpost in the midst of Apache territory.
Supervisors Janice Hahn and Mark Ridley-Thomas co-authored a motion calling for expansion of the IG’s authority to investigate the deputy groups that go by names like the Banditos, Reapers, Spartans, Regulators and Vikings.
“Now we’ve heard reports that the FBI has even launched its own investigation,” Hahn said.
The Los Angeles Times reported the FBI investigation earlier this month, citing multiple sources.
The board motion — which was unanimously approved — originally called for county counsel to return with recommendations about expanding the authority of the OIG within the next month, but a revised version set the time frame at 90 days.
Hahn said that would allow a RAND Corp. study commissioned by the county to gather preliminary information for the board. Pending state legislation granting subpoena power to civilian oversight commissions and inspectors general statewide might also be approved, making the motion moot, she said.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger raised concerns that the move to grant subpoena power might hamper RAND’s work.
“I’m hearing anecdotally that by doing this we’re going stifle the ability for the RAND study to move forward and that interviewees are not going to want to come forward,” Barger said.
However, Barger said she supported the motion in the interests of transparency and accountability.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl warned that subpoena power won’t solve everything.
“As soon as one (subpoena) is served, someone files a motion to quash,” Kuehl said. “None of this is a magic pill.”
But Kuehl agreed with her colleagues that it was an important way to send “an even stronger message that we are extremely concerned.”
The county is already suing Villanueva over the reinstatement of Caren Carl Mandoyan, a deputy terminated based on evidence of domestic violence, stalking and harassment of a former girlfriend, who was also a deputy. An attorney for Villanueva has accused the county of bias in what he called an ongoing attack against his client.
Many criminal justice and civil rights advocates praised the supervisors’ move, while other residents expressed support for the sheriff and reminded the board that he was elected by the people.
Villanueva has highlighted his efforts to make wholesale management changes at the department’s East Los Angeles station, which is the target of a lawsuit by young Latino deputies who say they were terrorized and assaulted by members of the “Banditos.”
But critics point to the return of the Fort Apache logo on the station door, an emblem banned by Villanueva’s predecessor and say the sheriff takes concerns about secret societies too lightly.
Station logos and deputy tattoos are seen by some as a sign of pride rather than renegade behavior. Barger, whose husband is a former sheriff’s deputy, has compared some of the tattoos to the Marine Corps emblem, displayed as a symbol of belonging.
During his remarks to the board, Huntsman also accused LASD officials of repeatedly violating county codes by denying his office’s requests for information and offering virtually zero cooperation on issues of any importance, as compared with near 100% cooperation from McDonnell, the prior sheriff.
Department emails circulated directing staff not to cooperate with the OIG and computer access to records was cut back, according to Huntsman. Only the threat of subpoena power has allowed the OIG to make any progress, he told the board.
Huntsman also pointed to other concerns beyond secret societies.
“Background checks for incoming deputies appear to have been radically stepped back,” he told the supervisors.
The department has been working to fill hundreds of open positions that have left the department understaffed and reliant on deputy overtime. Villanueva has said that the LASD no longer struggles to recruit new members because morale is higher among rank-and-file deputies under his administration.
A report released Monday by the OIG also found that the Sheriff’s Department has initiated fewer administrative investigations of deputies this year through May than at any time during the last 10 years, a period that covers the tenure of sheriffs McDonnell and Baca. The number of investigations to date in 2019 amounts to roughly 40% of the average total in past years over the same period, according to the report.
However, it did give the department credit for backing away from a practice of deactivating an outsize number of disciplinary investigations.
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