By Jim Holt
Senior Investigative Reporter
Citing a refusal by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to give county lawyers documents about deputy shootings, allegations of misconduct and body camera footage, county supervisors are taking over the job of responding to the public’s request for public records.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion instructing county counsel to come up with an ordinance for processing requests for public records and taking the job away from the LASD.
“There is kind of a disturbing pattern of needing to do workarounds where the sheriff won’t do his job,” Supervisor Sheila Kohl said, after hearing an Inspector General report on how county lawyers were denied LASD documents.
The call by supervisors to take over the job they say the LASD refuses to do is the latest in an ongoing tug-of-war power struggle between the LASD and the county.
This week, Sheriff Alex Villanueva sent a cease-and-desist letter to the board demanding supervisors quit referring to secret LASD groups as “deputy gangs.” In November, he pushed back on the county’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, predicting the termination of 4,000 deputies. In 2020, the board considered seeking ways to remove the elected sheriff from office.
When asked Thursday for a response to the board’s actions and comments, a spokesman for the LASD’s Sheriff’s Information Bureau said: “The sheriff is unavailable for a comment response at this time.”
The spokesman referred comment about the issue to the LASD website, which cited “very little infrastructure in place to prepare for the onslaught of Public Records Act requests that were to come.”
The LASD post reads: “The sheriff understands the value of transparency and accountability. To that end, the LASD requested funding for personnel, and tracking and redaction software, but was denied multiple times.”
On Tuesday, before inviting her fellow supervisors to weigh in on the issue, Supervisor Holly Mitchell said not responding to requests for public records erodes public trust.
“Increasing the public’s access to Sheriff Department’s records on use of force and alleged misconduct is increasingly vital to strengthening public trust, Mitchell said. “This motion takes steps towards adopting and implementing an ordinance to ensure the sheriff complies with his obligations under state law SB 1421 to disclose these records.”
At one point, Mitchell asked County inspector General Max Huntsman for an update on the LASD’s compliance with Senate Bill 1421, which demands transparency by releasing public documents.
“I cannot provide you statistics,” he told her, “because the Sheriff’s Department no longer provides information regarding county records in the regular course of business to county lawyers, myself included.”
“If you look on their website regarding where the sheriff claims to have transparency regarding shootings, you’ll see that although there’s been an improvement in identifying the deputies’ involvement in shooting(s) lately, there are numerous instances of cases which are outside the time frame provided for within SB 1421,” Huntsman told the board. “It is information we are not allowed to actively monitor due to the sheriff’s obstruction of our duties.”
Mitchell asked Huntsman about staffing — the reason cited by the LASD for not responding as promptly as expected when it comes to public record requests.
Huntsman told her, ”We asked simply to tell us how many people were working in the internal Criminal Investigations Bureau and they refused to tell us.”
To this, Mitchell responded: “It’s for these reasons that the motion has been brought forward.”
“I continue to struggle with our need to pass motions to ask a county department leader to follow state law, but apparently we do,” she said.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl asked the county’s Chief Executive Officer Fesia Davenport about LASD staffers tasked with the job of responding to requests for public records.
“The sheriff does have a current compliment of staff that some of them are dedicated to that function,” Davenport said. “At the end of the day we don’t have access or control of what those employees would do on a day-to-day basis.”
“We know what they are supposed to do on paper, but in terms of a person sitting at a desk in a chair and receiving directions from a supervisor to do or not do something, we would not be able to control that.”
Supervisor Hilda Solis expressed frustration and disappointment over hearing about requests for things like body camera footage not being answered.
“The OIG, because of the Sheriff Department’s constant blocks, is unable to independently investigate and even access complete body worn camera footage,” she said, noting the board advocated for and fully funded body cameras because, she said, the public needed another tool of oversight into the Sheriff’s Department.
“And, for the OIG to only get snippets of videos of deputy-involved shootings, including fatal shootings, is unheard of, and yet it continues,” Solis said.
“Because of the Sheriff Department’s either inability or refusal to comply with the law — something that has been in place since 2019 — I’m co-authoring this bill to shift responsibility of production of Public Records Act and SB 1421 documents to our county counsel,” she said, noting county lawyers would be better suited for the task.
“County counsel will be a better partner to the public, to the oversight entities and to this board,” she said. “To be more transparent to taxpayers and hold the Sheriff’s Department accountable to the victims and survivors of deputy misconduct.”