Earl Ofari Hutchinson
I’ll skip the diplomacy. One more Andres Guardado and the call must be for L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to resign or face recall. The reason for this call didn’t start with the mass protests over the slaying of Guardado. Villanueva was elected with the overwhelming support of the sheriff’s union. It backed him with gusto for a good reason. He promised to be a tough cop’s cop and go to bat whenever and wherever there was any inference of wrongdoing by deputies.
He has been as good as his word. He has waged relentless battle with L.A. County Supervisors over any cuts to the department’s funding. He has brought back a disgraced and discredited former deputy. He has said he’d bring back other deputies allegedly unfairly terminated.
He has repeatedly been under fire from civil rights activists and the supervisors for lack of transparency and accountability on deputy involved shootings. This issue exploded with the gunning down of Guardado in Gardena in June. Villanueva added much fuel to the fire in the slaying when he refused to release the autopsy report on Guardado’s killing. There was good reason for the secrecy. An independent autopsy found that Guardado was shot multiple times in the back. Villanueva added more insult to injury when it was revealed that the department hadn’t interviewed the shooter about the circumstances of the killing. Time, time, time, was passing, with no movement to determine just what and why the deputy resorted to gunplay with Guardado.
Instead, Villanueva offered a weak rejoinder about Guardado having what looked like an illegal weapon, casting aspersions on his claim to be a security guard and hunkering down behind the standard claim that the investigation is ongoing.
Villanueva’s handling of the Guardado killing appeared to be squarely in keeping with his see no evil hear no evil when it comes to actions of deputies, no matter how questionable and dubious. This shouldn’t surprise.
Villanueva is just the latest, and the worst, sheriff to slap a cloak of invisibility and invincibility over the actions of the sheriff’s department when it comes to transparency and accountability.
This is a department where deputies at some stations sport tattoos that looked suspiciously like, take your pick: gang, white supremacist, or violence promos. Next 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. Then there was the never-ending charge of racial profiling, harassment, and excessive force against sheriff’s deputies. The victims almost always are young African American and Hispanic males.
There’s no debate, though, about officers who lie and shade testimony in criminal cases. There have been a lot of them. They have been plopped in a data base of officers who have testified in criminal cases and their testimony is suspect to say the least. The problem is the state shield law that make it near impossible for defense attorneys to get information about their misconduct. Former L.A County Sheriff Jim McDonnell tried to turn over the names of the officers who give tainted testimony but was blocked. He also promised to rein in the high number of excessive force actions by sheriff’s deputies, almost all unpunished. He didn’t get the chance. We got Villanueva instead who defeated him in his reelection bid on the strong hint that cracking down on officers who overuse deadly force would not be the priority on his watch.
Tackling this problem means immediate and vigorous implementation of the 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.
This is where things fall apart. Bad officers are protected under the law from disclosure of their misconduct. L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey is, of course, under relentless attack for refusing to prosecute deputies who overuse deadly force. But even Lacey admitted that it’s tough for her office to get any information about a bad shooting from the sheriff’s department. Unlike the LAPD, there is no internal department requirement that a deputy be interviewed about a shooting on a timely basis. Lacey claims that this makes it near impossible for her office to get all the facts. And in the absence of those facts, a prosecution is even less likely. Villanueva has given no indication that he will move to change this and require immediate disclosure of all the facts in a shooting. This first and foremost means putting the deputy on the legal hot seat.
Villanueva has not done this. There’s absolutely no indication that he will. He is an elected official and barring any illegal action can only be removed by the voters. But if abuse, unwarranted deadly force, defiance, and obstructionism continue to be the watchwords of the L.A. County Sheriff’s department and its sheriff, then the call for Villanueva to resign or be recalled, must be made.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is, Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press) will be released in August. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.