LA Sheriff’s Department under state probe for reported accountability issues

By Matt Guilhem

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is now the target of a new investigation by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Becerra said the inquiry is a response to what his office terms an “absence of sustained and comprehensive oversight.” Photo by Amy Ta.

LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva is facing another investigation — this time from Sacramento. 

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced he’s launching a civil rights investigation into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Becerra says he’s looking to see if LASD violated laws or the rights of county residents. 

Under Sheriff Villanueva, the department has been beset by allegations of deputy gangs, charges of excessive force, and fatal shootings by deputies. He’s also repeatedly defied other county leaders, making monitoring LASD nearly impossible. 

Becerra touched on all those factors in announcing the investigation. He said he was formally looking into it because 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 the inquiry is a response to what his office terms an “absence of sustained and comprehensive oversight.”  

Taking to Twitter, LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he looks forward to the “pattern and practice” investigation. He says the department has routinely asked Becerra’s office to monitor investigations and that LASD will be fully cooperative. 

Launching an investigation like this is significant because the state attorney general is the only elected official with direct authority over county sheriffs. 

Article V, Section 13 of the state Constitution states: “The Attorney General shall have direct supervision over every district attorney and sheriff … and may require any of said officers to make reports concerning the investigation, detection, prosecution, and punishment of crime in their respective jurisdictions as to the Attorney General may seem advisable.”  

Probes like these look at patterns of systematic violations of people’s rights. They can take years to complete. In 2016, then state Attorney General Kamala Harris looked into practices at the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, and that probe ended in 2020. Harris is now the U.S. vice president, and California’s current top prosecutor, Attorney General Becerra, is likely to join her in the Biden administration. 

Sheriff Villanueva has repeatedly come under fire by the LA County Board of Supervisors and civilian watchdog groups. In October, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission unanimously approved a resolution calling for his resignation. 

 The fall also saw LA Supervisors vote 3-2 to explore ways to remove Villanueva from office, which could require a change to the state Constitution. The supervisors have also talked of stripping the current sheriff of some of his duties. 

Much of the tension stems from fatal shootings by sheriff’s deputies. Last year, 18-year-old Andres Guardado was shot in the back five times by deputies near Gardena. Months later, Fred Williams was shot and killed by a deputy during a chase in Willowbrook. Officials with the LA County Coroner’s office launched inquests into both deaths — the first time they’d opened investigations like that in 30 years. 

Recently, The Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School found that Villanueva has failed to crack down on deputy cliques or gangs that have operated within the department for decades.