California AG Launches Civil Rights Probe of LA Sheriff’s Department

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said investigators will look into reports of a “pattern and practices of unconstitutional” policing carried out by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Screenshot of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at a press conference in August 2020.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Claims of excessive force, retaliation, and other misconduct by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will be probed during a civil rights investigation, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Friday.

Becerra called the inquiry into the nation’s largest sheriff’s department an investigation into the “pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing.”

“There are serious concerns and reports that accountability and adherence to legitimate policing practices have lapsed at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” Becerra said during a media briefing. “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 the California Department of Justice launched its probe after receiving credible reports of misconduct and urged Angelenos to come forward with their own interactions with the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

“We’re just initiating the investigation,” said Becerra. “If there is behavior that people believe is violating their civil rights, we want to know.”

Special agents and the state DOJ attorneys will work through those credible reports to determine if the department’s management has failed to follow the law. Investigators will be interviewing residents, local officials, oversight committee and individual officers, according to Becerra’s office.

Other law enforcement agencies in California have been the focus of other similar civil investigation, Becerra said, and he emphasized that investigators are not pursuing a criminal inquiry at this time.

Becerra said he hopes that Sherriff Alex Villanueva and his department will cooperate with investigators.

“We are appreciative of the size of the work at hand,” said Becerra. “It will also mean work for the sheriff’s department to respond to our request, but we hope that we not only receive cooperation from personnel at the sheriff’s department in LA County, but that they will recognize the importance of this investigation and try to aid in its completion.”

In a statement, Villnueva said he welcomes 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,” Villanueva said. “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.”

Elected in 2018, Villanueva has openly traded barbs with the LA County Board of Supervisors over his management of the department. This past November, county officials launched their efforts to forcibly remove Villanueva from office.

He’s also been accused by the American Civil Liberties Union of ignoring violent deputy gangs within his own department and has deflected blame by county supervisors over his management of the department.

The ACLU called the AG’s announcement a “call by grassroots groups and the families of those killed by sheriff’s deputies.”

“The investigation should address past and ongoing misconduct, but more remains to be done,” ACLU attorney Andrés Kwon said in a statement. “The LA 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.”

Members of the LA County Civilian Oversight Commission have complained Villanueva refused to attend any of the commission’s meetings. County Inspector General Max Huntsman claimed the sheriff’s department did not respond to audits of police shooting investigations. The commission sued Villanueva in May 2020 after he ignored a subpoena to testify on the sheriff department’s handling of Covid-19 infections in the county jails.

Becerra said his office has only just outlined its investigation at this point, but he’s confident his office can get results.

“We’re not a county entity,” said Becerra. “We are the California Department of Justice. Our charge is set forth in the Constitution and by state law. And so we will do what we have done in previous cases involving other law enforcement agencies. We will stick to that, do it by the book and hope we receive the cooperation we need there in the county of Los Angeles.”

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