Watchdog Slams LA Sheriff Over Closed Officer Probes

Los Angeles County’s newest sheriff Alex Villanueva. (Villanueva for Sheriff)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A body tasked with oversight of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday that Sheriff Alex Villanueva failed to properly explain and document his decision to halt investigations into officer misconduct.

The incidents of misconduct under investigation by county investigators range from officers sleeping on the job and being involved in traffic accidents to officers sexually assaulting jail inmates and abusing children.

While department policy allows for some misconduct probes to be inactivated – in cases where the officer resigns or retires or when the complaint is withdrawn, for example – Villanueva’s decision to halt the investigations raised concerns from officials.

Villanueva has locked horns with county leaders in recent months, most notably for his decision to reinstate officer Caren Carl Mandoyan. Mandoyan faced but was never convicted of domestic violence charges in 2016.

After being elected on a reformist platform and backed by dozens of LA community organizations, Villanueva drew backlash after claiming Mandoyan was wrongfully fired under a departmental process that terminates or disciplines officers for misconduct.

In January, Villanueva told the county Board of Supervisors that his “truth and reconciliation” panel would review as many as 400 cases where officers’ “exculpatory evidence” was ignored by county investigators.

The board responded by voting to freeze Villanueva’s internal review over concerns that it would turn the clock back on officer oversight and accountability reforms.

But Villanueva had already kicked off his internal review, issuing a December 2018 “verbal directive” that department brass should identify misconduct investigations that should be inactivated without any determinations being made, a county inspector general report said.

Out of 45 investigations that the department inactivated earlier this year, 31 were closed for reasons that don’t conform to department policy, according to the report dated April 11. By comparison, only 10 cases were inactivated in the final quarter of 2018.

The inspector general’s report describes an incident where a lieutenant endorsed blank checks from a department fund but was not disciplined. The probe was closed, which means no findings are publicly available.

Villanueva also inactivated a probe of an officer suspected of forcing a female jail inmate to perform oral sex in two separate incidents. The department never initiated an administrative investigation into the case.

At a hearing Tuesday, members of the county’s Civilian Oversight Commission took issue with Villanueva’s failure to identify the specific policy he used to inactivate the probes.

Commission chair Patricia Giggans said Villanueva’s actions could lead to a breakdown of public trust and a culture of impunity.

“It’s critical that policies be followed, otherwise it gives deputies the impression that no matter what you do it’s about who you know when it comes to accountability,” Giggans said. “It gives the public the impression that there is a thumb on the scale of justice.”

Giggans asked Inspector General Max Huntsman whether subpoena power “would play into” the commission’s challenge of compelling Villanueva to produce info regarding his new policy.

“The word subpoena always puts fear in people’s boots,” Huntsman said, adding that while the commission currently lacks legal authority to force Villanueva to share information it could also send him a letter requesting documents, including redacted memos that explain his directive.

Next year’s presidential primary ballot in LA County will task voters with deciding whether to grant the commission subpoena power. The commission has not taken an official stance on the measure, according to spokesperson Jennifer Osborn.

Deputy inspector general Bita Shasty told commissioners information from inactivated misconduct probes would not be subject to disclosure under Senate Bill 1421 because they concluded without any findings or determinations.

The bill, which took effect Jan. 1, opens up access to personnel records on incidents of police shootings, excessive force or sexual assaults by officers.

“I think it’s troubling that the public wouldn’t be able to access this info,” said commissioner Priscilla Ocen.

A spokesperson for Villanueva did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In March, the sheriff told county board members that his “truth and reconciliation” review was on hold. Last week, he said he acting to protect the department from liability by ending investigations that exceeded the statute of limitations or violated the officer’s due process rights.  

“The department has acted responsibly in dealing with such personnel matters, and we continue to work to mediate the concerns of the Board of Supervisors,” Villanueva said in a statement, adding that the department “would never take any action that would jeopardize our communities.”

Villanueva’s decision to rehire officer Mandoyan prompted the supervisors to sue, claiming Villanueva acted outside the scope of his authority. The board sought an emergency order forcing Mandoyan to return his badge, gun and other county property.

But a California judge denied the county’s request and set a June 26 hearing in the matter.

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