While recently sworn-in Sheriff Robert Luna and his “top brass” were absent Thursday, members of the department’s Civilian Oversight Commission discussed “cautious optimism” about building their relationship in the coming year at William S. Hart Park.
The commission’s final meeting of 2022 — its first in-person meeting in more than two years due to COVID-19 — was intended to discuss priorities for the next year as well as how they can best effect change moving forward.
After having an openly contentious relationship with Luna’s predecessor, Alex Villanueva, the county’s lead watchdog, Inspector General Max Huntsman, shared this sentiment during his report to the commission.
Huntsman called Luna “a good man” in his report, which he said was based on a Wednesday meeting with the new sheriff.
“I may be a terrible judge of character but seems to be, he’s good. I may have Stockholm Syndrome: The last time I met with the sheriff, the sheriff criminally threatened me. And this one didn’t, so he’s a head and shoulders above the former sheriff. But since the election, only one person has changed in LASD and that’s the sheriff. And so everything else, if indeed he’s successful in changing the culture and approaches of the Sheriff’s Department, it hasn’t been instant.”
Huntsman also noted that by ordinance, the sheriff or a designee such as assistant sheriff or one of four undersheriffs should have been at the meeting.
Former federal judge Robert Bonner, a commission appointee from Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the 5th District, which includes the Santa Clarita Valley, said the commission should be cautious about drawing too many conclusions this early.
“It’s very, very important that we give him a chance to settle into the job before being overly critical,” Bonner said.
Commission Executive Director Brian K. Williams attributed the absence to a misunderstanding by LASD staff who apparently worked Luna’s schedule for the day around an assumption the meeting would be in the downtown Los Angeles area, where the commission previously met on a semi-regular basis.
When pressed for specifics after the meeting on the reference in his report to cautious optimism, Huntsman declined to comment and noted that he’s not a member of the commission.
Commission members Irma Cooper and Patti Giggans, a vocal Villanueva critic who was targeted by an LASD search warrant in September, noted it’s only been a couple of weeks, but there already have been signs that speak toward an effort to mend the fractious relationship.
“I think just being invited to his swearing-in ceremony. I thought that was, you know, extending the olive branch,” Cooper said. “Everything I’ve heard about Luna has been so positive, I am really looking forward to having a good relationship.”
Giggans added that the members were invited individually, and that Luna’s remarks were very positive for the county, which she considered important.
Toward the end of his tenure, in addition to frustrations with the commission and the OIG’s office, Villanueva had a very public dispute with the Board of Supervisors, resulting in the board putting an initiative on the ballot giving them the authority to remove an elected sheriff for cause. County voters passed the measure with 71.84% of voters approving.
Giggans also noted that Luna’s willingness to acknowledge the existence of deputy gangs was a stark departure from Villanueva’s approach, which included the former sheriff sending a cease-and-desist letter to the board in February over its use of the term “deputy gangs.”
In terms of priorities for the next year, the commission identified a range of issues, with several mentioning deputy gangs, use of force, concerns about the jails and the response to calls involving the Mental Evaluation Teams, or mental health crises.
The commission’s next meeting Jan. 19 would be virtual. Commission staff also received input from commission member James Harris, who noted the increased attendance that happened as a result of the online access during the pandemic, and that it would have addressed the challenge faced by the sheriff in not being able to attend.
Giggans and commission chair Sean Kennedy both also brought up the advantages of in-person meetings, which included personal interaction and the ability to better understand comments from those who choose to participate.
“I think science and mental health research is starting to show what three years of being in little boxes is doing to the quality of relationships,” Giggans said, “including, I read something recently, the quality of deliberation.”
There were about 10 people present during the roughly two-hour meeting at Hart Park, including a handful of commission staff.
For more information on the commission and its upcoming meetings, visit coc.lacounty.gov.