THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: New sheriff sets off loud warning bells

A bell sounded loudly when new Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva pilfered an idea from the post-apartheid South African government of President Nelson Mandela of a “truth and reconciliation commission.”

In South Africa, the commission was explicitly formed to bring the worst and most vicious apartheid criminal perpetrators to face their victims and bear public witness over their racist crimes. The intent was to render some measure of public justice for their acts.

However, the bell sounded loud when Villanueva said that a big mission of his commission was to review cases of former deputies who had been canned from the department for various malfeasances. The problem is that in more than a few cases those malfeasances were for gross misconduct and abuses.

There is no evidence that the charges against the officers were trumped up or that they were victims of discrimination or retaliation. Clearly, this effort to bring back bad cops could send the wrong message that the era of laxity or even a blind eye to officers committing abusive acts is back.

The bell sounded even louder when Villanueva announced that he was dumping two constitutional policing advisors. Those were civilian attorneys who counseled and reported directly to former Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

He appointed them in 2015 and their job was to provide counseling to the department on the right and wrong way to police and that again explicitly meant keeping a sharp eye out to ensure officers did not commit abuses and misconduct.

It also entailed a continual review of the department’s policies and procedures on how abuse complaints were handled, officer training and discipline procedures.

This is a crucial oversight need since the Sheriff Department does not have the multi layers of civilian oversight that the LAPD has. That includes a police commission, inspector general and a rigid internal discipline panel.

Villanueva also announced a shake-up in the command staff. Even that set off a loud bell if that meant getting rid of command officials who are committed to reform.

His upset election and dramatic announcements of change came close on the heels of a report a few weeks earlier that deputies at some stations sport tattoos that look suspiciously like gang, white supremacist or violence promos. Then there was the charge that deputies with dubious records of lying, planting evidence and other assorted acts of misconduct are routinely protected from disclosure under an archaic and thoroughly reprehensible California shield law that erects a near impregnable barrier to finding out anything about their misconduct.

There’s also the perennial charge of racial profiling, harassment and excessive force against sheriff’s deputies. The victims almost always are young African-American and Hispanic males.

None of this is new. And former Sheriff McDonnell made a good faith stab at investigating these allegations of racism, profiling and outing the deputies who committed abuses. McDonnell understood that the department is still under an intense looking glass given its history of excessive force actions by sheriff’s deputies — almost all unpunished — that for years plagued the department.

In addition, there is the problem of the grotesque abuses in the L.A. County jails that garnered lawsuits, federal intervention and massive national attention.

Tackling these problems means immediate and vigorous implementation of the dozens of reform recommendations such as a fully empowered independent civilian oversight commission, getting rid of deputies who brutalize prisoners at the jails and administrators who look the other way, total transparency and accountability on the reform process.

And, most importantly, eliminating the deeply troubling problem of dubious officer-involved shootings and allegations of racial profiling by deputies.

The department took one step in that direction when it agreed to review and revise policy on how and when officers should use deadly force in civilian encounters. The policy change would emphasize containment and de-escalation, not confrontation and gunplay when confronting civilians in situations where there was no direct threat to the officers.

That is not enough. There must be real discipline of deputies who used deadly force under highly dubious circumstances.

During the long years of former Sheriff Lee Baca’s reign at the department, the question that was repeatedly asked by reformers was: what will and can be done to break the continuing and vicious cycle of abuses? The answer was always that a full implementation of the reform proposals was the only way to put the department permanently on the road to turning the sheriff’s department into an efficient, effective, community-oriented department firmly committed to constitutional policing.

This will ensure that it is a department that has the full support and even praise of the community, especially minority communities in Los Angeles County.

Villanueva may yet prove to be the hard-charging reformer that the department still needs to make sure it’s totally remade over into that kind of department. The loud bell that he set off in his maiden pronouncements about where he’s taking the department, however, don’t bode well. Time, as always, will tell.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the weekly co-host of “Hutchinson’s Inside L.A.,” a Southern California news and public affairs show Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK-Pacifica Radio 90.7 FM streamed at kpfk.org. and Facebook Livestreamed. He is president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.