By Jim Holt
Senior Investigative Reporter
The ongoing feud between the L.A. County sheriff and the county Board of Supervisors over transparency intensified this week when the inspector general reported an increase in the number of deputy-involved shootings and the number of people who died in custody compared to previous years.
Inspector General Max Huntsman told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday that 55 people died last year while in the custody of the Sheriff’s Department — and he said he ran into an “information blackout” when he looked for details about the deaths.
His much-awaited report was presented as a “full year of statistics for several years running, relating to deputy-involved shootings and also deaths in custody.”
Huntsman said: “The sheriff himself doesn’t speak to me much.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva did not immediately respond to The Signal’s requests for comment.
Of the 55 in-custody deaths last year, Huntsman reported increased numbers of people dying from drug overdoses and suicides.
The numbers left Supervisor Holly Mitchell “speechless.”
“You talked about the increase by almost 60% in deputy-involved shootings since 2018, which followed the 29% of 2017 and 2018,” Mitchell said. “You talked about a 175% increase in in-custody deaths since 2016.”
Mitchell wanted answers.
“Can you get into any specifics as to what you think caused these increases or if there were any changes in policies or practices that could be driving these increases?” she asked Huntsman.
The inspector general said there have been changes made under Villanueva’s watch, specifically a shift toward permissiveness and away from discipline.
“During this period, the Sheriff’s Department has retrenched a number of reforms that were put in place … as a result, the discipline system has been dismantled in a lot ways,” Huntsman said. “A lot of policy-making that’s done at the top levels messages to deputies in the wrong direction.”
“Rather than messaging supervision and support for appropriate decisions, there is a message of permissiveness in terms of what choices deputies want to make, even if they’re inappropriate, an example being the deputy gang problem which the state has had to place a new law requiring investigation of, and the sheriff as you know has recently said, ‘No, no, there’s no problem here,’ and isn’t investigating,” he said.
When pressed for details by supervisors, Huntsman cited a reluctance by the LASD to share information.
“The specifics for any individual case require very detailed data, for instance, not just the body worn cameras,” he told the board at one point.
“At the same time, the Sheriff’s Department has shut us out from its legal requirement to provide evidence regarding what happens in individual cases,” he said. “So, we’re not able to do the kind of deep evidentiary analysis that would be necessary to answer that question.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn wanted to know more from Huntsman about the 45 in-custody deaths not categorized by the LASD.
“I do think it’s important to know why people are dying in our custody,” she said. “We had 55 deaths in custody last year. Nine were suicides. One was a homicide. That leaves 45 deaths that weren’t really categorized. I’m interested in what the other 45 deaths were.”
Huntsman told her eight people in custody died of COVID-19 last year and 10 died of drug overdoses.
Hahn asked him if he shared his findings with the sheriff.
“We bring them to the attention of the Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff himself does not speak to me much,” he said.
“There’s been violence in the jails. It goes up, it goes down,” Huntsman said. “But, I really do believe that the big contributor is the dismantling of the discipline system that has happened in the past couple of years under this administration.”
“Sheriff Villanueva has, in addition to waging a war of words, as to public officials, myself included, yourselves included, he’s done a lot of things behind the scenes that we’ve reported on but the information doesn’t always get out to the public about what he’s done to close discipline cases, to instruct his subordinates that they should not aggressively pursue discipline cases and to limit our ability to gather information on that subject,” he said. “I believe it has an impact, but it’s hard to say for certain because of the information blackout he has imposed.”