LA County Sheriff's Department watchdog warns agency is defying reforms

LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- The Sheriff's Department pushed back hard Wednesday against a warning by one of the county's chief watchdogs that the department's defiance of reforms had recently intensified.

"It is unfortunate (Inspector General Max Huntsman) continues to misinform the Board of Supervisors, through deception and omission,'' Lt. John Satterfield said in a statement provided to City News Service on behalf of the department. "We want to correct the inaccurate statements characterizing the sheriff or the department as obstructing either oversight or reform."

In remarks to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Huntsman pointed to rising in-custody deaths and deputy-involved shootings as evidence.

"Unfortunately, the behavior of the Sheriff's Department has gotten worse in the last month in terms of the aggressive way in which it has fought back against reform,'' Huntsman told the board, though he did not offer any specific data on recent events to back up the statement.

The inspector general's presentation related to events of the quarter ended in December, but Huntsman said the numbers showed problems "coming to a head.''

He acknowledged that it is difficult to draw broad conclusions from a small data sample, but said he was troubled by the year-over-year rise in deaths of inmates in custody.

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The report offers very little information on the deaths, making it almost impossible to draw comparisons over time, but Huntsman said that even allowing for deaths related to COVID-19, the numbers were higher than 2013 levels.

As a point of reference, former Sheriff Lee Baca, later convicted for his role in obstructing an investigation into department corruption, resigned in 2014.

During the last three months of 2020, seven inmates died while in custody. One was a suicide, one was a medical emergency, one inmate was found unresponsive in a cell and the other four cases involved prisoners transferred to hospitals for a "higher level of care," according to the report.

The department said it had not had any unusual increase in in-custody deaths outside of COVID-19-related losses. It provided information to CNS for January, during which eight inmates died, four reportedly from COVID-related causes.

"It is disingenuous to say COVID was not related to the increase in deaths,'' according to the department statement. "In February 2021, we had two inmate deaths: one a terminal cancer patient and one an unfortunate suicide at the Palmdale Station jail. We continue to experience individuals being brought into custody in extremely poor health and with serious pre-existing medical conditions.''

The inspector general also highlighted 11 shootings involving deputies during the fourth quarter as additional cause for concern. Seven people were struck by gunfire and six died as a result.

Those summaries were based on preliminary information from the department that the OIG was unable to verify. They included the widely reported case of Nicholas Burgos Jr., 38, who was shot by a deputy at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center after smashing equipment in an apparent rage and then trying to force his way into another patient's room.

All but one of the other fatalities involved a suspect that deputies said was armed with a gun. One of two men killed in a single incident may have been shot by someone other than deputies, according to the preliminary department report.

The department pointed to rising violence on the streets and the threat to deputies.

"When compared to this time last year, the murder rate in L.A. County has more than doubled,'' Satterfield said. "Yet, there have been two deputy-involved shootings in 2021. Although every violent encounter is unfortunate, we reject the notion that the existence of a DIS is indicative of some manner of wrongdoing or mismanagement.

"Our personnel make split-second decisions during situations posing a significant credible threat of death or serious bodily injury which are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving,'' he said, adding that each incident is thoroughly investigated.

The department noted that the details of all deputy-involved shootings are posted on the LASD website's Transparency page.

The spokesman also suggested that Huntsman could be acting in retaliation for a six-page letter Sheriff Alex Villaneuva sent to the board last month detailing his "grave concerns" about Huntsman's integrity. The sheriff asked the board to replace the inspector general.

One of the more notable things about the OIG report presented Tuesday was the number of shootings in which no video was available from body-worn cameras. In several cases, that was because cameras had not yet been rolled out to all deputies, but in at least one, a deputy failed to activate his camera.

Supervisor Holly Mitchell asked what could be done to ensure that deputies follow policy on cameras seen as critical to determining the truth of any incident.

Huntsman told her, "It's a very complex issue,'' and said he thought it would be premature to begin disciplining deputies who are just getting used to the cameras for not remembering to turn them on.

"They need clear policy and clear direction, and they need to practice,'' he said.

Huntsman's concerns were raised on the same day that the Sheriff's Department highlighted to the board how it has delivered on one major reform: Villanueva's promise to end transfers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement absent a criminal warrant signed by a judge.

Sheriff's Capt. Brendan Corbett told the board Tuesday that ICE submitted 983 requests in 2020 to detain inmates for transfer upon their release from county jail.

Eighty percent of those inmates didn't qualify for transfer based on state law or LASD policy. Of the remaining 128, 43 inmates were transferred to ICE, according to the LASD summary.

That number represents less than one-tenth of the number of transfers made in the prior year, and reflects a moratorium on transfers for civil immigration enforcement instituted by Villanueva in April and made permanent in August.

Villanueva did not attend the board's virtual meeting, but took to Twitter Tuesday afternoon to highlight the report.

"As Sheriff, I am responsible for EVERYONE'S public safety, and I will not allow an entire segment of the population to be afraid to report crimes to law enforcement,'' Villanueva wrote.

He said the department had also ended a past practice of selling data on undocumented inmates.
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