By Phoebe Glick
LOS ANGELES — Citing numerous abuses by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California called on the Attorney General to investigate the LASD late this week.
The ACLU open letter was co-signed by Black Lives Matter LA and the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, and asked Attorney General Xavier Becerra to conduct an investigation of Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
The organizations contended that lack of accountability, police brutality, and wholesale rollbacks of reforms merited further scrutiny of LASD.
Since he became Sheriff, Alex Villanueva has rehired several officers dismissed from the force for misconduct, including Carl Mandoyan, who was fired in 2016 after the Civil Services Commission found him to be untruthful during an investigation into a case of domestic violence in which he was alleged to have attacked a fellow sheriff’s deputy.
Following his termination, Mandoyan was a key volunteer in Villanueva’s campaign for Sheriff. After being elected, Villanueva reinstated Mandoyan as a sheriff’s deputy over Los Angeles County’s protestations. In 2019, LA County brought suit against Villanueva, resulting in Judge Mitchell Beckloff’s 2020 ruling that Villanueva’s “action to rehire Mandoyan was illegal.”
The ACLU’s letter asserted that illegal rehiring like this proved that Villanueva was uninterested in upholding justice or protecting the public, instead prioritizing sending “a clear message to deputies that they will not face accountability for misconduct.”
Indeed, since the May 25 murder of George Floyd, the ACLU claims that the LASD has killed 11 community members. This high rate of killings has earned the LASD an F grade on the California Police Scorecard.
From 2016 to 2018, the LASD killed or seriously injured 125 people, of which 48 percent were unarmed. And 88 percent of those killed or injured were nonwhite, which California Police Scorecard categorizes as the worst out of all of California’s sheriff’s departments for racial bias in arrests and deadly force.
These dismal scores, said the ACLU, reflect individual tragedies, such as the deaths of Dijon Kizzee, Andres Guardado, and Fred Williams III, who was killed on Oct. 16 after pursuit by a sheriff’s deputy. The department later said that Williams had a gun, and that they had recovered a semiautomatic handgun from the scene.
Advocates, along with Williams’ family, question the LASD’s account, citing security footage showing Williams running empty-handed and scaling a small shed before being shot. They have asked the Sheriff’s department to release bodycam video of the incident.
The California Police Scorecard has reported that of the 41 instances where LA sheriff’s deputies say they saw a gun, the gun was never found in 14 cases (34 percent).
The letter to Attorney General Becerra also details Villanueva and LASD’s response to Dijon Kizzee’s killing. Kizzee, 29 years old, was killed on August 31 after a routine bicycle stop. Deputies attempted to stop Kizzee, who was riding on the wrong side of the road. By the end of the encounter, Kizzee had sustained 16 gunshot wounds.
Past those details, accounts diverge. LASD authorities say that Kizzee ran from deputies, dropped a gun, and was bending over to pick it up when the deputies fired at him.
The family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, says that cell phone footage of the event disproves LASD’s statement. The footage reportedly shows Kizzee walking away from deputies and appearing to bend over before being shot.
The ACLU letter noted that LASD delayed release of Kizzee’s official autopsy for a month, putting the LA Medical Examiner’s autopsy report on security hold. The official autopsy differed from an independent autopsy commissioned by Kizzee’s family on both cause of death and number of gunshot wounds.
According to the letter to Becerra, Kizzee’s case is not the only time LASD has delayed or obstructed independent investigations; 18-year-old Andres Guardado was shot in the back five times by deputy Michael Vega. After this execution-style killing, LASD put a security hold on Guardado’s autopsy as well.
Despite the LA County Inspector General’s demands that evidence be released immediately, the autopsy was never made public by LASD. Instead, after nearly a month of waiting, the LA Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner overrode the hold, calling for LASD to be “more timely and more transparent” and saying that the public “has a right to see.” Villanueva’s only response was to publicly condemn the coroner.
The letter asserts that LASD went even further by “destroying security cameras” at the site of Guardado’s shooting. The digital recorder component of the premise’s cameras had been removed by detectives as part of an investigation into a separate shooting at the same place. Because the deputies weren’t wearing bodycams, the only available footage of the incident is a low-quality, blurry video taken by cameras from a business across the street.
Guardado’s killer, deputy Michael Vega, was also associated with the LASD “Compton Executioners” gang. In a court deposition, an LASD deputy identified Vega as a prospective member, who may have shot Guardado in an effort to prove he was worthy of joining the gang.
The deputy testified that the “Executioners” would have “998 debriefs” after shootings, using the code for deputy-involved shootings to refer to their celebratory parties in bars, after which the shooter and their partner would get tattoos.
Villanueva has refused to acknowledge the existence of deputies’ gangs in LASD, saying that “there is zero evidence.” According to the letter, he has also “killed active investigations into serious misconduct involving… child abuse, domestic violence, and rape of a woman in custody.”
The ACLU letter maintains that hindering independent investigations is also part of his modus operandi— he’s recently refused to comply with a subpoena issued during an investigation into leaked photos of the scene of Kobe Bryant. He allegedly covered up deputies taking and sharing photos of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe and Gianna Bryant.
One deputy shared these pictures, including gruesome shots of dead bodies, with a woman he had just met in a bar. Villanueva reportedly said that deputies “would not face consequences” if they deleted the photos. Vanessa Bryant has brought a suit against him.
Villanueva’s fight against oversight extends to attacks on lawyers and protesters.
Protesters were severely beaten at many peaceful events, including protests following Guardado and Kizzee’s deaths. The National Lawyers Guild has sued LASD for unlawful use of force and requested a restraining order after LASD grabbed a legal observer and practiced an offensive anti-crowd technique against at an NLG press conference.
Journalist Josie Huang was also attacked by LASD recently while covering a protest outside a hospital where two deputies were recovering from gunshot wounds. Huang’s phone recorded deputies approaching her, and continued recording as she was thrown to the ground and arrested.
LASD released statements saying that she had not identified herself as a reporter and was not credentialed correctly, which Villanueva repeated in several interviews. Huang’s phone footage directly contradicted these assertions, leading to widespread condemnation of LASD.
The letter notes a particularly damning development is the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission’s unanimous call for Villanueva’s resignation. The COC cited Villanueva’s “serious lack of judgement and leadership” as well as his “efforts to block meaningful reform.”
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