LA sheriff vows an end to ‘us vs. them’ department mentality

Written by Zeke Reed, produced by Giuliana Mayo

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna briefs the media outside the Civic Center in Monterey Park, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. At least 10 people were killed and 10 others wounded in a shooting rampage at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio after a Lunar New Year celebration on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. Photo by Yannick Peterhans-USA TODAY.

The LA County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) is the largest in the world with nearly 10,000 sworn deputies and another 8,000 professional employees. It oversees policing in 40 of LA County’s 88 cities as well as unincorporated parts of the county. It also provides security for the LA County court system and operates the county jails. 

The massive law enforcement agency has been the center of multiple scandals in recent years, including the existence of deputy gangs, abuse and deaths in county jails, deputy shootings of civilians, disgraced former Sheriff Lee Baca’s conviction for obstruction of justice, and former Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s very public standoff with the LA County Board of Supervisors. 

The position has a history of attempted reform efforts that ended in disappointment, and both Baca and Villanueva were once seen as reformers. 

But since December 3, 2022, there’s been a new sheriff in town. 

Robert Luna is now almost four months into his tenure after defeating Villanueva on a reform platform. Luna comes to LASD from the Long Beach Police Department, where he served as chief. 

Community approach to public safety 

Since the beginning of this year, Luna notes that though “violent crime in the county is down 7.8%, property crime is up 2.5%. So we have some work to do.”

He claims that the Sheriff’s Department is headed into the 21st century in its approach to public safety. “What that means in plain English is that it's a strategy that is driven based on data. … Relationship-based policing … means we're in partnership with the community and other partners. … We cannot do this alone.” 

Luna says this represents a change in tone from the previous administration and a pivot from an “us vs. them” mentality towards the community and the Board of Supervisors. 

When asked about the ongoing presence of sheriff’s gangs, Luna claims that the department’s recently founded Office for Constitutional Policing — under the leadership of Eileen Decker — is designed specifically to address this issue. He explains, “They're in the process of hiring several attorneys, several auditors and investigators. And not only are they going to deal with this issue of deputy gangs, cliques, and subgroups, but they're also going to be focused on the consent decrees and the settlement agreements that the Sheriff's Department has had for years.”

These consent decrees involve federal investigations into racial profiling in policing and abuse in jails

Luna admits that changing the culture of contempt and criminality in the department will require more than bureaucratic updates. He claims to be engaging in a long-term process aimed at transforming the department through partnerships. “Let's work with stakeholders like labor partners, other elected officials, our civilian oversight commission, our inspector general. Those are all people that I'm collaborating with repairing a lot of fractured relationships.” 

Questions about this process remain, including the fact that his second in command, April Tardy, has an ankle tattoo that some officers reportedly identified as a gang sign. Luna says he and Tardy have discussed it, and he has every confidence in his undersheriff. “[She is] heading an internal effort … by several members of this department that is 100% committed to eradicating this issue.”

Improving jails and addressing mental health

When asked about the jails that are the basis of one ongoing consent decree, Luna says he views the ACLU (who filed the original legal action) as a partner in improving conditions. 

“We as a county need to come together and figure out how we can provide the upgraded facilities that we need to house inmates in 2023. … I talked about mental health care [and] health care. We need rehabilitation, reentry, reintegration services, education and recreational opportunities. Our facilities aren't conducive to that now, but they need to be.”

He adds that it’s not just the inmates who are suffering under the current poor circumstances at the jails. “Our employees are working under the same conditions as well, and that's not good for anybody.”

In the aftermath of California’s mental hospital closures, county jails have become the de facto mental health facilities for many people with severe disorders. Luna claims that 40% of the folks currently in county jail suffer from diagnosed mental health challenges. He suggests this represents “an entire ecosystem that's failing, because the reason they're in our jail is because they have nowhere else to go.” He says he is committed to working with state and federal lawmakers to address this situation.

Still, LA County’s jails remain home to ongoing violence. Just this month, three inmates have died over a nine-day period. One of them, 29-year-old Samuel Mark, was being held on misdemeanor charges and had yet to be sentenced. Presumably, he was only in jail because he couldn’t afford to post bail. In response to questions about these deaths, Luna claims, “Any death is not acceptable, especially while they're in our custody because they are our responsibility. Each of those deaths are going to be thoroughly reviewed.” 

When pushed that these deaths happened on his watch, Luna claims that this represents a bigger systemic problem in county health care provision.

“We are the only health care to some of our community members who do go into custody. That does tell you that our entire health system needs to be looked at. I'm not sitting here pointing the finger. It all starts with me, I have to look at [that], but then I have to share with my partners how do we improve this? If people are coming into our custody in poor health, what are those circumstances they came from?”

Beyond the specifics of the recent deaths, the overall problems at Men’s Central Jail are well documented, but little has been done to address them. When asked about this, Luna says he plans to work with county partners, including the Board of Supervisors, to overhaul the current situation. 

He says that starts with asking questions: “How do we get in compliance? What is it going to take? How much is it going to cost? How long? Is there a technology fix here? I mean, there's so many different aspects to look at.”

Even outside its glaring shortcomings, Luna’s department faces an ongoing reckoning around the role of policing in public safety. Asked about the overall political and cultural shift in perceptions, Luna says he plans to “listen to the community… and our partners on the Board [of Supervisors] and the [county] employees.” 

Exactly what this will look like remains an open question, and only time will tell whether Luna’s attempts at reform will succeed where Baca and Villanueva faltered.