THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Villanueva must go, but what will that change?

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By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

Every one of the half dozen challengers to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the same thing about him and the department. It must change and he must go.

The problem with that is we have heard this refrain about the sheriff’s department countless times over the past decade. The call for massive, sweeping reforms and an overhaul began long before Villanueva took office in 2018. In each case, it has been nothing but much noise and no action.

Now there’s yet another challenger, former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, who will face Villanueva in the Nov. 8 runoff election. Luna, like the others, says that once he topples Villanueva, he will bring the reforms that have long been demanded and proven so resistant to implement. It’s going to be a tough uphill slog.

Villanueva was elected with the overwhelming support of the sheriff’s union. It backs him with gusto for a good reason. He promises to be a tough cop’s cop and go to bat whenever and wherever there is any inference of wrongdoing by deputies.

He has been as good as his word. He has waged relentless battle with county supervisors over any cuts to the department’s funding. He brought back a disgraced and discredited former deputy. He said he would bring back other deputies allegedly unfairly terminated mostly for the overuse of excessive force.

He has repeatedly been under fire from civil rights activists and the supervisors for lack of transparency and accountability on deputy-involved shootings. That issue exploded with the gunning down of Andres Guardado in Gardena in June 2020.

Villanueva added much fuel to the fire in the slaying when he refused to release the autopsy report on Guardado’s killing. There was good reason for the secrecy. An independent autopsy found that Guardado was shot multiple times in the back.

Villanueva’s handling of the Guardado killing appeared to be squarely in keeping with his see-no-evil. hear-no-evil attitude when it comes to actions of deputies, no matter how questionable and dubious. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

Villanueva is just the latest, though by far the worst, sheriff to slap a cloak of invisibility and invincibility over the actions of the sheriff’s department when it comes to transparency and accountability.

This is a department where deputies at some stations sport tattoos that look suspiciously like, take your pick: gang, white supremacist or violence promotions. Next, there is the charge that deputies with dubious records of lying, planting evidence and other assorted acts of misconduct are routinely protected from disclosure under an archaic, and thoroughly reprehensible, California shield law that erects a near impregnable barrier to finding out anything about their misconduct.

Then there is the never-ending charge of racial profiling, harassment and excessive force against sheriff’s deputies. The victims almost always are young African American or Hispanic males.

There’s no debate, though, about officers who lie and shade testimony in criminal cases. There have been a lot of them. They have been included in a database of officers who have testified in criminal cases and their testimony is suspect to say the least.

The problem is the state shield law that makes it nearly impossible for defense attorneys to get information about their misconduct. Former Sheriff Jim McDonnell tried to turn over the names of the officers who give tainted testimony, but was blocked. He also promised to rein in the high number of excessive force actions by sheriff’s deputies, almost all unpunished. He didn’t get the chance.

We got Villanueva instead who defeated him in his reelection bid on the strong hint that cracking down on officers who overuse deadly force would not be the priority on his watch.

Tackling this problem means immediate and vigorous implementation of the reform recommendations such as a fully empowered independent civilian oversight commission, getting rid of deputies who brutalize prisoners at the jails and the administrators who look the other way, total transparency and accountability on the reform process. And most importantly, eliminating the deeply troubling problem of dubious officer-involved shootings and allegations of racial profiling by deputies.

That is where things fall apart. Bad officers are protected under the law from disclosure of their misconduct. Former District Attorney Jackie Lacey was under relentless attack for refusing to prosecute deputies who overuse deadly force. But even Lacey admitted that it’s tough to get any information about a bad shooting from the sheriff’s department.

Unlike the LAPD, there is no internal department requirement that a deputy be interviewed about a shooting on a timely basis. Lacey claimed that that made it nearly impossible for her office to get all the facts. And in the absence of those facts, a prosecution is even less likely.

Villanueva has done little to require immediate disclosure of all the facts in a shooting.

Luna calls for sorely needed transparency to the department. He certainly deserves the chance to try to make it happen. But if abuse, unwarranted deadly force, defiance, and obstructionism continue to be the watchwords of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and its sheriff, then it will be nothing but another empty call.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “The Midterms: Why They Are So Important and So Ignored” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show at 9 a.m. Saturdays on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. 

 

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