Past Time to Demilitarize the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department

Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable President Earl Ofari Hutchinson will discuss the campaign to  demilitarize the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department on Monday, June 8, 10: 15 AM PST on the nationally syndicated Al Sharpton Show on the Radio One Network.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

In June 2016 following the mass shooting at an Orlando, Florida nightclub, George Hofstetter, President of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, issued a terse statement. He boasted that law enforcement in Orlando was able to take the shooter down because the officers had a big array of military weapons, armature, and equipment at the ready. The problem is that military weaponry is costly, deadly, and in the hands of a lot of officers. That weaponry can be used not just against crazed mass shooters but against civilians deemed threats as well.

In the past decade, the L.A. County Sheriffs has gone on a big spending spree to arm itself to the teeth with automatic weapons, body armor, high tech sniper rifles, assault rifles, and mini tanks. The department is not an ordinary police department but a department that can conduct high-tech, modern military style policing. It has the trappings of a paramilitary force.

The LAPD for years has taken fierce heat for abuse, misconduct, and dubious killings. It is the target of nearly all the mass protests and demonstrations. It has been the subject of multiple blue-ribbon commission investigations over its repressive police methods and abuse. Meanwhile the Sheriff’s Department has flown way under the public and media radar scope and escaped public scrutiny. Despite a handful of budget cuts over the past year, the department is still by far the single biggest agency soaking up county spending. It rakes in more than 10 percent of the county’s overall $35 billion plus annual budget. It quietly spends a lot of those dollars on weapons of military destruction.

The heavy weapons, military training, and aggressiveness is woven deep in the culture, and operations of the department. The result: The sheriffs have repeatedly been hit with the charge that its deputies form racist, white nationalist influenced cliques, complete with tattoos. 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 despite modification still erects a near impregnable barrier to finding out anything about their misconduct. Then there’s the long-standing charge of racial profiling, harassment, and excessive force against sheriff’s deputies. The victims almost always are young African American and Hispanic males.

A couple of years ago an investigation found hundreds of officers who lie and shade testimony in criminal cases. They gave suspect testimony in many criminal cases. The state shield law makes it near impossible for defense attorneys to get information about their misconduct. What punishment these officers received, if any, is still anybody’s guess. The department’s record on misconduct and violence is every bit as checkered as the LAPD’s with far less oversight.

Sheriff officials in the past have promised to rein in the still ridiculously high number of excessive force actions by sheriff’s deputies, almost all unpunished, that plague the department. There have been dozens of reform recommendations proposed. They include a fully empowered independent civilian oversight commission with subpoena power, 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 gun play when confronting civilians in situations where there was no direct threat to the officers. This is not enough. There must be real discipline of deputies who used deadly force under highly dubious circumstances.

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 refuses to prosecute the officers involved in bad shootings, and the tattoos remain plastered on the arms of many deputies who may or may not be racist or violent prone. This is tantamount to a license to commit questionable acts of misconduct with impunity.

The murder of George Floyd cast police departments under harsh new, and much deserved glare. A flood of local, state, and national elected officials has all loudly pledged to make reform the watchword of police departments. The center of that is curbing wanton police killings of unarmed civilians and canning and prosecuting cops who kill. The L.A. County Sheriff’s is notoriously one of those departments precisely because of the lethal mix of bloated funding and a top-heavy budget, poor to non-existent accountability and punishment, and the unlimited access to and use of heavy armaments. Armaments the department can freely use whenever and wherever and in any situation, it deems appropriate for its officers. That situation is rarely confronting a mass shooter but in a civilian encounter.

Mayor Eric Garcetti felt the heat from demonstrators and agreed to push the city council to defunding the LAPD. But no such demand has been made on the Sheriff’s Department. Given the its checkered history of violence, abuse, and militarization, the demand should be Demilitarize the L.A. County Sherriff’s. It’s past time.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press) He is an associate editor of New America Media. 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

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.




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