THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Lancaster incident new challenge for sheriff

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By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist 

“It’s disturbing, no ifs and or buts about it.” 

A clearly troubled Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna minced no words in expressing his reaction to the video of a deputy mauling a middle-aged Black woman outside of a Lancaster retail store. Luna promised that there would be a thorough investigation of the blatant excessive force act by one or more deputies caught on video.

This is hardly the first time that one or more sheriff’s deputies have been caught on video roughly handling a civilian. 

In the past, the aftermath went like this. There was first community and some public outrage. Next L.A. County Sheriff’s Department officials and the Sheriff’s Oversight Commission promised a vigorous investigation. 

The deputies were placed on administrative leave (with pay). Then after weeks or months passed the deputies were back on the job and the case was closed. No action was taken.

But Luna has repeatedly said things will be different this time around in dealing with misconduct. He has made reform his mantra. He vows that deputies will be held fully accountable for their actions and that strict adherence to civil rights and constitutional policing will be the rigid modus operandi of the department.

The Lancaster incident, though, is the first real test for Luna to determine whether he will back up his words and promises with real action. But the Lancaster case also points up the tough challenge that Luna faces.

Abuse and misconduct, up to and including the deadly use of force in highly dubious situations, have been a long-standing practice by far too many deputies. They repeatedly get away with it because they know the department will take no action, be it suspension, firing, let alone a recommendation for prosecution.

They know that they have a powerful union that will back them to the hilt no matter how outrageous their misconduct is. They know that the county Board of Supervisors has absolutely no real oversight over department practices and policies. 

They have no power to fire a callous, wayward, law-and-order tough guy sheriff. They know that the general public and much of the media will quickly move on after a momentary spurt of outrage over a blatant act of excessive force.

This has been a virtual license for some deputies to commit outrageous acts of abuse and violence secure in the knowledge that they can get away with it. Luna is bucking up against this hard brick protective wall that shields sheriff’s deputies from accountability for their crimes. 

Nowhere is the get away with anything attitude more evident within the department than the racist gang cliques that have been a long-embedded part of the sheriff’s department. This has always been the true litmus test of reform.

The facts are beyond dispute about the existence of gang cliques. A parade of former sheriff’s deputies and officials publicly said under sworn testimony that the gang cliques existed within the department. A Rand study in September 2021 re-confirmed their existence.

It credited sheriff’s officials with at least addressing the problem and taking some steps to eliminate them. But it also blasted the department for not being clear, firm and initiating a strong policy to eliminate them.

It’s only a short step from deputies in gang cliques to engaging in racial profiling, harassment and using excessive force against citizens. The victims almost always are young African American and Hispanic males.

It’s also a short step from gang clique deputies to lying and shading testimony in criminal cases. There has been a lot of that.

Now the ball is in Luna’s court. Tackling this problem and the problem of misconduct means more than just implementing new training and conduct standards. 

It means immediate and vigorous implementation of reform recommendations such as a fully empowered independent civilian oversight commission, getting rid of deputies who brutalize prisoners at the jails and administrators who look the other way, total transparency and accountability on the reform process. And most importantly, it means firing and — where warranted — recommending prosecution of deputies that overuse force.

Luna said all the right things in his campaign to oust former Sheriff Alex Villanueva. And judging from the overwhelming crushing voter support he got in his big win; the public enthusiastically bought his reform pitch. 

That translates into a firm mandate to make good, and make good fast, on his reform pledge. The crackdown on deputy excessive force use along with the elimination of the gang cliques must remain his priority. Anything less poses a grave danger to department credibility, public safety and balanced, fair constitutional policing.

The Lancaster case is just such an example of officer misconduct that continues to pose that grave danger to department credibility, public safety and balanced, fair policing. More than that, it’s a test for Luna to back up his words about reform with real action against the deputies involved. Eyes are on him.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show at 9 a.m. Saturday on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. 

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