Robert Luna unseated Alex Villanueva as Los Angeles County sheriff last fall, after campaigning on a promise to “restore public trust and reform the Sheriff’s Department.” One year later, some are questioning whether Luna will ever make good on those commitments, and they see little to distinguish this administration from the old one.
The last top sheriff entered office with similar promises.
Former Sheriff Villanueva was elected sheriff of LA County in 2018 in a stunning upset; he was the first nonincumbent to win the seat in over a century, and he raised a fraction of the funds his opponent, Jim McDonnell, did. Villanueva made much of his Democratic Party affiliation, claiming he would be the first Democratic sheriff in the county in 138 years.
His four years in office were “marked by a dizzying pace of misconduct, abuse and corruption scandals,” notes Guardian reporter Sam Levin, but he also ran on the promise of cleaning up the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). After his victory in 2018, Villanueva told outlets his win meant “reform was the most important thing” to voters, and cited concerns about racial profiling and deputy cliques — or deputy gangs, as they’re more commonly understood — as major issues for the department.
Villanueva later denied that these “cliques” were a problem, and embraced right-wing talking points at appearances on conservative media outlets. His tenure was further stained by the cover-up of a deputy kneeling on the head of a handcuffed man, and by a 45 percent increase in shootings by LASD deputies.
So far, Sheriff Luna has a less combative relationship with the press, and a more measured tone than his predecessor. However, community advocates express concern that this shift in demeanor has not yet yielded meaningful changes in jail conditions, use of force by deputies or accountability for sheriff misconduct.
Helen Jones is a 2023 recipient of American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California’s Advocate for Justice Award, and a senior campaign lead with Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization that advocates for incarcerated people and their families. Jones has been a community organizer since the death of her son John Horton at Men’s Central Jail in 2009.
Jones has closely followed the department over five administrations, and says Luna has not brought much in the way of change. “No, I haven’t seen a lot of change with sheriff accountability, especially in deputy shootings. Not in the jails, either — the deaths have increased, and nobody’s been held accountable.”
When Jones’s son John Horton was killed in 2009, it was initially reported as a suicide by hanging. The autopsy report told a different story: Horton had blunt force injuries, a broken nose and a head wound. Jones filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the County and LASD, which was ultimately settled. She’s seen firsthand how difficult it is for families to obtain autopsy reports now.
“They’ve made it harder to get the autopsy report — they put security holds on them and say ‘it’s under special investigation.’ It’s just a way to delay. It can take over a year to get them,” Jones said. “And back in 2009, they would give you the full report. They’re often redacted now, even the details around the cause of death.”
A recent report by two labs at UCLA, the BioCritical Studies Lab and the Carceral Ecologies Lab, supports this claim: Between 2008 and 2014, there were no instances of cases being put on security hold. However, cases were put on hold between 2016 and 2019. Specifically, 90 percent of the documents related to investigations into deaths in custody were placed on security hold in 2019. Per the report, “Security holds prevent families, scholars, and activists from seeking public accountability and closure.”
While there’s no data available yet for Luna’s tenure as sheriff, 41 people have already died in LA County jails this year, according to the Vera Institute of Justice — an average of almost one death per week.
Although the county recently reached a settlement with the ACLU regarding jail conditions and overcrowding, Luna concedes that jail facilities “are not conducive to our client and inmate population in 2023,” and that there are “some unacceptable conditions” at the Inmate Reception Center. The mother of a young man housed in Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in June 2023 recently contacted Knock LA to detail the trauma his brief incarceration caused. They both wish to remain anonymous to protect the man’s privacy.
She said her son was not allowed to shower for the first nine days at Twin Towers, and was never given toiletries, including a toothbrush. Dormitories in Men’s Central Jail were overcrowded, and maggots were found in the food served, she said. She added that that her son reported witnessing deputies flash gang signs to each other, and deputies made it “quite clear” they were never to be bothered by incarcerated people.
He returned home with hand tremors and severe anxiety, and was initially too physically weak to take care of himself. He said “it was a truly horrific experience that no human being should ever endure,” but hopes that sharing this experience will lead to change, including the long-awaited closure of Men’s Central Jail.
Deplorable conditions aren’t just about the facilities, though: LASD and the county have been in litigation for over a decade regarding excessive force within the jails. Although a settlement was approved by the court in 2015 to reform department policies and practices on use of force, the ACLU filed a motion earlier this year alleging that LASD has failed to comply with its terms.
On November 9, 2023, the court unsealed six video exhibits from the case, showing LASD deputies using excessive force and head strikes against incarcerated people. The incidents took place during Villanueva’s tenure, and most were found to be within department use-of-force policy. No deputies were disciplined.
The ACLU has asked the court:
to order LASD to prohibit head strikes (except in rare instances when deadly force is authorized), limit use of a dangerous restraining device called the WRAP, and impose mandatory discipline of LASD employees for the most egregious violations, including for those who strike people in the head outside of policy, lie in use of force reporting, or for supervisors who excuse the dishonest reporting and/or out-of-policy uses of force.
The most recent report by the settlement’s court-appointed monitors was filed on October 20, 2023. According to preliminary data, “there is a 36% decrease in use of force incidents from the first half of 2022 (523) to the first half of 2023 (384).”
Melissa Camacho, a senior attorney with ACLU and counsel on the use-of-force case, Rosas v. Luna, says LASD and the county seem to believe that a decrease in use-of-force incidents means that any increase or change to accountability practices is unnecessary.
But in the last quarter of 2022, LASD found only six staff members in violation of use-of-force policies, and the harshest punishment was a one-day suspension. Only a written reprimand was given 75 percent of the time. The monitors in Rosas did not agree with LASD’s conclusions in 85 percent of the use-of-force cases involving head strikes that they reviewed during the same period of time.
It takes the county upwards of six months to provide the monitors with new use-of-force data, and Camacho says they “still aren’t seeing a marked change in deputies being held accountable for violations of use of force, and the county’s reporting continues to lag in that respect.”
Although LASD has said it intends to create an oversight committee to ensure violators are held accountable, progress on forming that committee has been opaque and slow. The committee would be comprised entirely of LASD staff.
Camacho is skeptical. “I’m not sure if they’ve implemented the oversight committee, but it doesn’t feel like a solution. We’re continuing to negotiate revisions to the implementation plan, and we’ve reached an agreement on the rules surrounding the WRAP restraining device,” she said. Under the terms of that agreement, there are new restrictions on use of the WRAP to avoid the concurrent use of spit masks. The “masks” are actually fabric and mesh bags placed over the head, nominally used to prevent the transmission of bodily fluids from spitting, sneezing, or coughing. A September 2023 internal LASD bulletin cautions that “the decision to use a spit mask should not be taken lightly, as improper use may cause injury or death, including asphyxiation, suffocation, or drowning in one’s own fluids.”
The next hearing is on December 11, and it remains to be seen what will happen if the parties are unable to reach an agreement on the rest of the use-of-force provisions.
Sheriff Luna told KCRW earlier this year that he views the ACLU as a partner in improving conditions in the jail. He also told the outlet that 40 percent of the people currently in county jail suffer from diagnosed mental health challenges, and suggested this represents “an entire ecosystem that’s failing, because the reason they’re in our jail is because they have nowhere else to go.”
His own staff might disagree: The court-appointed monitors spoke to custody staff that same month, and staff expressed a “general feeling that inmates are faking being mentally ill.”
This underscores a serious problem for would-be reformers: Even if Luna sincerely wants to change LASD for the better, the culture of the department has to change with him.
A few weeks into Luna’s administration, 34-year-old rapper Feezy Lebron was approached by two deputies while in his car in a strip mall parking lot. Lebron recorded audio of the incident, and LASD later released body-worn camera footage.
Lebron was initially approached by deputy Jacob Ruiz, who asked if he was smoking weed. Lebron said no, and explained that he had weed in his vehicle, which is legal in California.
Ruiz then opened Lebron’s car door and attempted to pull him out of the car. Lebron repeatedly asked why, and Ruiz’s only explanation was that Ruiz ordered him to get out.
Deputy Justin Sabatine can be heard saying, “I’m just gonna spray him, dude. Get out or you’re getting sprayed.”
The body camera footage next shows Sabatine switching from his pepper spray to his gun and commanding Lebron not to move. “Take off in this car, I’m gonna shoot you.”
The car was off, and Lebron’s hands were raised. With his gun pointed at Lebron, Sabatine threatened him again: “If you pull some bullshit, you’re gonna take one to the chest.” Sabatine demanded that Lebron comply with Ruiz, while threatening, “Move your hands from right there, and you’re done.”
According to LASD’s statement on the incident, these threats and contradictory demands were merely “unprofessional language.” Lebron was ultimately cited for a missing license plate and released. In February, he told Streetsblog LA that he struggled with panic attacks, lack of sleep and severe anxiety around driving. “I barely drive anymore. Even the thought of a police car getting behind me — I’m thinking [in terms of] life and death now.”
LASD’s statement claims that, “Sheriff Luna has made it clear that he expects Department personnel to treat all members of the public with dignity and respect, and that personnel who do not uphold our training standards will be held accountable.” But nearly a year later, there has been no follow up to indicate whether Ruiz or Sabatine were fired, or even disciplined for their conduct.
The Current Report published a story in January alleging that LASD sources have identified Sabatine as a shot-caller for the Grim Reapers, one of at least half a dozen gangs within the department.
Earlier this year, the special counsel to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission issued an extensive report on the violence, intimidation, and impunity of LASD deputy gangs and cliques. It ends with a list of recommendations for Sheriff Luna to hold these groups to account and to remove them entirely.
Sean Kennedy is the executive director of Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy and acting chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. When reached for comment, he provided the following statement:
Sheriff Luna ran on a platform of eradicating deputy gangs from the LASD. Although he has been in office for almost one year, he still hasn’t adopted an anti-deputy gang policy despite the Civilian Oversight Commission, the Inspector General and the Board of Supervisors all urging him to act swiftly and decisively to stop further misconduct and violence by the Banditos and Executioners gangs. Sheriff Luna argues that he has to “meet and confer” with the unions, but a year seems like a long time to meet and confer regarding an anti-gang policy required by state law. The delay doesn’t bode well for meaningful reforms.
After decades of broken promises and empty rhetoric, reform advocates have reason to be skeptical. “There’s a new sheriff in town” is an old saying, meant to signal that changes are coming. But a year after getting their new sheriff, Los Angeles is still waiting.
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