Los Angeles Elects Another Reformer Sheriff To Replace Its Previous Reformer Sheriff

from the spin-the-wheel! dept

The Los Angeles Sheriffs Department (LASD) has been overseen by a succession of terrible elected officials. Sheriff Lee Baca presided over a department that filled its ranks with criminals, ignored the proliferation of deputy gangs, and ran a jailhouse informant program so unlawful it resulted in an FBI investigation and the conviction of Sheriff Baca on obstruction charges.

Enter Alex Villanueva. Villanueva promised to clean up the LASD, a promise he kept right up until he had a chance to keep it. Instead of cleaning up the department, Villanueva made it worse. He ignored reports of deputy gangs, allowing them to thrive. He threatened to sue county politicians who dared to mention the existence of gangs Villanueva claimed (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary) did not exist. He raided the homes of critics and blocked the county inspector general from accessing LASD buildings and files.

Villanueva is now gone, voted out of office in favor of another self-proclaimed reformer, Robert Luna, who was previously the chief of police for the Long Beach PD. In the weeks preceding his election, people had more questions than answers, although some voters seemed to believe Luna was the best person for a job mishandled by many in previous years.

The fact that he was the only candidate in the eight-person primary field with no ties to the sheriff’s department may have helped him get one step closer to it. (Jim McDonell, who was defeated by Villanueva four years ago to become the rare sitting sheriff to lose an election, was Luna’s predecessor as Long Beach police chief.)

“Voters who wanted a real alternative had one candidate,” said Jody Armour, a professor of law and constitutional law scholar at USC.

“[H]e will get rid of deputy gangs, he’s not from the system, and wants to work WITH Board of Supervisors,” said Eagle Rock resident Donna Choi, who voted for Luna, in a direct message on Twitter.

So far, so good. But these promises are similar to those made by Villanueva prior to his election. And he abandoned those almost immediately after taking office.

Luna does have some positive notes on his record, though.

Over his seven-year tenure at the top of LBPD, Luna brought in body-worn cameras and implemented an early-warning system to identify problem officers. He started an office of constitutional policing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. He told us he had reduced police shootings by department officers by 50% between 2015 and 2020.

His statement following his election sounds pretty good, too.

Sheriff Luna outlined his plan for the Department and set the groundwork to foster a collaborative work environment with the rest of County Government. “Integrity is about treating people with respect and living up to the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics.” Sheriff Luna said, “Accountability is not something to be feared, but rather embraced, as it is the cornerstone to any successful law enforcement agency. All of us, starting with me, will be accountable to the people we serve. And collaboration is the best way to reduce crime and to work with our community in partnership.” 

But will Sheriff Luna actually reform the LASD? Or will he allow the LASD to reroute his priorities and give Los Angeles County residents more the same subpar, abusive law enforcement it has suffered through for years?

Luna’s track record as the head of Long Beach PD suggests he may not be the reformer he portrays himself as. A deep dive into his career by Knock LA uncovers plenty of problematic behavior by both Luna and the department he ran.

First off, the Long Beach PD is allowed to investigate its own shootings. Many departments do this, but few do it the way the LBPD does.

Rather than homicide investigators conducting recorded interviews with officers following a shooting as is advised by DA protocol, officers file statements which are then reviewed by investigators who may instruct officers on revisions. The original drafts of these statements are not made available.

That sounds like the sort of policy a reformer would alter, rather than allow to continue under his watch.

And even though Luna claims to have reduced police shootings during his tenure as chief, most of the shootings that did occur were extremely questionable.

In 74% of police shootings between 2016 and 2020, LBPD officers did not attempt to use non-deadly force before firing their guns, data pulled from the California Department of Justice and compiled by PoliceScorecard.org shows.

In 2018, it was discovered that officers were using a self-deleting messaging app called TigerText. Once this information was made public by Al Jazeera, Chief Luna forbade its use. He also claimed the app was not used to destroy evidence or make messages related to arrests, investigations, and prosecutions inaccessible to the accused. But all of that seems highly unlikely, given this:

One LBPD source told Al Jazeera that they witnessed the app being used during an investigation into the fatal police shooting of Jason Conoscenti in 2014. Long Beach Officers Eric Barich and Salvadore Alatorre, falsely believing that Conoscenti had assaulted a sheriff’s deputy with a deadly weapon, shot him as he ran away from police following a pursuit and lengthy standoff. Prosecutors declined to criminally charge the officers involved, citing “insufficient evidence,” but the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Conoscenti’s aunts for $2 million. Alatorre was fired in 2019 after numerous excessive force cases resulting in huge cash payouts by the city. 

On top of that, Chief Luna apparently approved the destruction of two decades of internal affairs records before a new law went into place making these records accessible to the public for the first time in the state’s history.

In 2018, days before SB 1421 — a statewide transparency law that opened up certain police misconduct records for the first time — was set to go into effect, the LBPD purged a 23-year backlog of internal affairs records. While police administrators claimed at the time that it was merely a matter of clearing up storage space, internal emails we later obtained showed that Luna and other police brass were circulating messages from outside attorneys advising them to shred records ahead of the new law.

There’s much, much more in the Knock LA report that shows Luna isn’t the reformer he wants people to believe he is. His department has a long history of stonewalling public records requests and data shows his department engaged in the same biased policing that has long plagued the department he’s been elected to lead.

While it’s possible Luna may surprise everyone (including himself, apparently…) by bringing a new level of accountability and transparency to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, odds are even better he’ll just be the new face of the county’s ongoing law enforcement disaster.

Filed Under: alex villanueva, lasd, lee baca, police gangs, robert luna

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