Opinion: What Will It Take to Get the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to Obey the Law?

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva

A law enforcement agency that doesn’t obey the law? That would be the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

The state legislature last year passed a law – Senate Bill 1421 – the requires law enforcement agencies to release records of police use of force and misconduct. That law, which took effect in January, was expected to dramatically increase transparency in a state that has had the most restrictive laws in the nation when it comes to disclosing records of public safety officer misconduct, which includes use of force or sexual misconduct.

Various deputies unions across the state fought the law, going to court to argue that it should not be applied retroactively, thus keeping from the public records of misconduct before Jan. 1. However, ,with the exception of a case still under review in Tarzana, the law has been affirmed by judges.

So now the law is in effect and is being enforced. Maybe. Sort of.

WEHOville on Jan. 27 submitted a request via UPS to the office of Sheriff Alex Villanueva for any information regarding the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation and possible discipline of deputies involved in the shooting death by a deputy of one young man and the wounding of another at 939 Palm Ave., an incident for which Los Angeles County paid $7.5 million to settle a civil lawsuit. The request also asked for information regarding the deputy involved in the 2015 death of a young pedestrian, Jonathan Pena, on the sidewalk along Santa Monica Boulevard when he was hit by a squad car that spun out of control. That request, according to UPS, was received and signed for on Jan. 29.

Liam Mulligan being removed after being shot by a deputy on April 6, 2014, at 939 N. Palm Ave. (Photo by Jon Viscott)

And why would WEHOville want that information? Regarding the 939 Palm incident, it’s because a witness to that horrific shooting on April 6, 2014, contested key testimony from the deputies involved in the shooting, who still work for the Sheriff’s Department.  “They lied,” said Catherine Novis, a resident of the apartment building, referring to the deputies’ denial to investigators that she had shown them a photo of the man they were after, just minutes before they shot and killed the wrong one. “It’s just gross.”

The Sheriff’s Department has said deputies involved in the 939 Palm shooting underwent training and that it took “corrective action,” but exactly what that involved nobody knows. Regarding the death of Jonathan Pena (and the serious injury to USC cardiologist Michael Fong, who was walking on the sidewalk near him) there are conflicting stories about what happened. The California Highway Patrol was asked to investigate, but to date what it has learned nobody (outside the Sheriff’s Department) really knows. 

Under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the Sheriff’s Department has 10 days to respond to a request for information about a deputy’s misconduct, at which point it can request an additional 14 days if the process is complex. UPS provided a signed statement showing that Sheriff Villanueva’s office received WEHOville’s request at 12:25 p.m. on Jan. 29. But the Sheriff’s Department didn’t acknowledge receipt of the request until Feb. 15 — 17 days later. Then it sent another letter acknowledging the receipt dated March 7 that noted the department’s right to ask for a 14-day delay in the request for information about the 939 Palm shooting, but didn’t ask for that delay. And also on March 7 WEHOville received a letter denying access to information about the Pena incident, citing a complex number of laws that essentially meant that that case currently is the subject of a civil lawsuit

Jonathan Peña, killed in a collision by a Sheriff’s deputy’s car on Santa Monica Boulevard

Jump ahead to April 19, when the Sheriff’s Department sent the exact same letter that it sent on March 7, saying it had the right to a 14-day delay (but not requesting such a delay, and not noting that it already had sent the same letter.) Calling the department’s Risk Management Bureau for an answer is an absolute waste of time.  One is referred to a deputy and ends up getting a voice mail message from the deputy’s phone that warns that the message you leave “won’t be monitored,” which I take to mean “we aren’t going to listen to it.”

So, 78 days after a request for information that it was required to provide under the state Freedom of Information Act, the Sheriff’s Department still hadn’t provided it. And today, 158 days after receiving the letter from WEHOville, it still hasn’t provided the information we requested.

Is that a sign of corruption or incompetence? Or maybe a bit of both. The Los Angeles Times has reported extensively on the reluctance of local law enforcement agencies to release records that expose misconduct by their employees. As the Los Angeles Times has reported, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose election campaign promise was “transparency,” “has refused to search for records, instead demanding that reporters identify specific cases they are seeking.”

The Sheriff’s Department did release records to the Los Angeles Times about one deputy  — a man accused of domestic abuse who worked on Villaneuva’s election campaign, was sacked by former Sheriff Jim McDonnell, and then returned to his job by Villanueva after he won. It has released a handful of separate files to KPCC, but nothing to the Orange County Register. Villanueva has tried to make at least one of those record releases difficult for the requestor. The Times reported that the Sheriff’s Department “charged KPCC $1,655 to redact audio from shooting investigations.”

These issues are not the sort of things city officials – elected or appointed – like to dig into. When running for office, some politicians hope for the support of the Sheriff’s deputies union, which has fought release of the records.  Our Public Safety Department has a reputation for trying to quiet difficult inquiries from the few Public Safety Commissioners who bother to make them. When local residents demanded an answer to what happened at 939 Palm at a June 2, 2014, City Council meeting, Council members John D’Amico, John Duran and Jeffrey Prang stood by the Sheriff’s Department, despite the lack of any information. “We stand firmly with you and the Sheriff’s department,” Duran told then-Capt. Gary Honings.

City Hall did issue a statement several days after the 939 Palm shootings saying “the West Hollywood City Council and City Manager are seeking answers and are working diligently to support efforts to examine the many details of this incident. The City of West Hollywood is actively working with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as part of a multi-agency review of this event. The following agencies will participate in the investigation: the Los Angeles County Office of the Inspector General; the County of Los Angeles Office of Independent Review; the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Internal Affairs Division; the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Homicide Bureau, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.”

However the answers that the city said it was seeking, if they were received, were never made public.

Councilmember Lindsey Horvath has pressed for answers but so far to no avail. “More transparency will improve relations between law enforcement officers and the people they serve,” Horvath said at a City Council meeting in 2017. “People understandably are questioning law enforcement for a lot of different reasons. We need to ensure that there is trust in the justice system.”

Villanueva can take a major step toward ensuring that trust if he obeys the law he is supposed to enforce and provides the information requested to the people his department is supposed to protect and serve.  WEHOville is waiting.


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Jonathan Simmons
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Jonathan Simmons

No law will ever be in forced, if the law requires Law Enforcement to obey.

Who polices the Police???

A big flaw in an otherwise pretty well thought out Country 2almost 250 yrs ago.

Answer to this post: if any one knows (I don’t mean or wish or hope) but knows an actual plan to enforce the Law Enforcement in our Country, I would love to hear it.

carleton cronin
Guest

Police in the USA have an unfortunate history of corruption, mismanagement nepotism resulting in a great divide between the people and the necessary enforcement of law. The current sheriff is no more than “one of the gang” and a union hack – an opinion to which several of my close friends in law enforcement espouse. This guy will have a terrible effect on department morale. We should do all we can do to get him back on the retired list and re-instate McDonnell.

RobbyDobby
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RobbyDobby

West Hollywood needs its own police force. Beverly Hills has its own force. Culver City has its own force. If this City truly believes in self rule, which is the claim, then contracting with the LA County Sherifs Department should have been a temporary measure to fill the gap between the beginning of city-hood and a now fully functional mature government. There is something rotten in the LA Sherifs Dept., that much is clear. Why we continue to trust an agency which has lost the trust of the wider County is beyond me. Our City Council needs to get over… Read more »

Chris Sanger
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Chris Sanger

Sheriff Villanueva is a real threat to the citizens of LA Co. He defeated the incumbent in an upset (it’s a nonpartisan election) with a core of supporters within the LA Sheriff’s Dept who want to go rogue and not be confined by outside control. This is a key issue for WeHo at the moment, clearly sensitive – WeHo pays for the services of the dept., it’s a desired assignment in the department. The Sheriff can have a big impact on life in the city. He has openly defied to Co Board of Supervisors on multiple issues. The city can… Read more »

Rogue Behavior
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Rogue Behavior

Oy, vey….” a desired assignment”?

Alan Strasburg
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Alan Strasburg

It’s almost as if J. Edgar Hoover himself has risen from the grave and continues to collect dirt on those who would be (should be) in a position to hold him accountable.

Woody McBreairty
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Woody McBreairty

I’m given to understand that those elected politicians publicly say they “stand by” even those sheriffs who engage in such irresponsible & destructive behavior, even those who so carelessly take the lives of such innocent & defenseless young men as those mentioned here, because they don’t want to make the natives restless & cause even more hostility toward law enforcement that there already is, principle & conscience be damned. T’would be better to expose the corruption & try to clear out those who are responsible for it, instead of perpetuating it. None of these issues are ever adequately “handled internally”,… Read more »

Jason
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Jason

They should fork over the information we pay them to protect West Hollywood and we have the right to obtain the facts.

Eric Jon Schmidt
Guest

Also the Sheriff’s Department needs to train better for escalation of force. According to law enforcement protocol: “force may be used against a resisting subject”. No one at 939 was resisting. If anything, they could have used a stun gun. Plus The Deputies in West Hollywood should always wear body cams, if they don’t already. The only person who should be allowed to turn them off is the Watch Commander at the end of each Deputies shift

Eric Jon Schmidt
Guest

Under The California Freedom of Information Act, Any public record must be supplied to those who request it. I have done it many times and have quite a collection which I will publish at some point. I don’t like to say this since I have been accused of being litigious, but filing a lawsuit would allow the plaintiff subpoena power during discovery to receive just about any documents he/she/they want. Plus the ability to depose each Deputy or anyone else who might have pertinent information for 8 hours each. In the case of a lawsuit, the information before the law… Read more »

Ham
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Ham

we support the police. we also wish they were more aggressive and visible in West Hollywood.

FB1
Guest
FB1

YES!!!

Gina Scarlata
Guest
Gina Scarlata

You can’t ask for them retroactively. Anything that happens since the law passed is fair game. Anything that happened prior, suck it up, buttercup.

Stuff happens. That’s life, so just move on.