Board Instructs Sheriff to Stop the Work of his Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Now Under Legal Scrutiny

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion directing County Counsel to evaluate the legality of Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s proposed “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and similar efforts to reevaluate discipline previously imposed on Sheriff’s Department personnel. Until all legal questions have been resolved – including appeals – the Board instructed the Sheriff to discontinue reevaluating discipline cases and unilaterally reinstating fired deputies.

The Board made the decision after hearing powerful testimony from criminal justice reform advocates as well as domestic violence survivors, who expressed concern about the Sheriff’s recent decision to rehire a deputy who served on his campaign. That deputy’s termination over domestic violence allegations had been upheld by the Civil Service Commission.

“Based on what has occurred behind closed doors, it is difficult to believe that the Sheriff’s Truth and Reconciliation process will be objective, fair or legal,” said Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas, lead author of the motion. “Today’s Board action is unprecedented but necessary if we are to maintain public trust in the Sheriff’s Department, maintain hiring standards of the highest quality, and preserve a decade’s worth of hard-won reforms.”

“We are asking the Court, the appropriate venue, to clarify our legal authority in order to resolve this serious disagreement between the Board and the Sheriff,” added Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, co-author of the motion. “The Sheriff can’t just invent an employee review process because he doesn’t like the result of the review process we have. We will not sit back as policies designed to improve accountability in the department are rolled back.”

Board Chair Janice Hahn said, “From what we have seen, the Sheriff’s Truth and Reconciliation Panel is set up only to legitimize the reinstatement decisions the Sheriff himself has already made. This Board has serious concerns about this panel and the effect it has already had on public trust in the Sheriff’s Department — especially among survivors of domestic abuse. I appreciate, however, the Sheriff’s stated willingness to work with us and I am hopeful he will reconsider this panel as well as the reinstatement of Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan.”

“This Board of Supervisors and the public do not have any insight into this Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who serves on it, what processes are undertaken, and what standards are being applied,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis. “The road of reform that the Sheriff’s Department has taken over the past several years, along with this Board of Supervisors, has taken us towards building transparency, accountability, and mutual trust. We must not go backwards, and this motion is an important step in LA County’s official priority to advance Sheriff’s Department reform.”

“I appreciate the Sheriff’s stated intentions to improve deputy morale and enhance recruitment efforts, however, it is very important that those goals not come at the expense of public trust and increased civil liabilities for the County.   I remain very concerned about the legality of the Truth and Reconciliation panel which appears like window dressing to justify the reinstatement of a deputy whose termination was sustained by the Civil Service Commission,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said.

Interim Inspector General Rod Castro Silva addresses the Board as Sheriff Alex Villanueva looks on. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors.

The motion stated “the Sheriff has been acting unilaterally to reinstate deputies before setting up a formal process,” adding, “the lack of clarity around a process for making what appears to be swift and consequential decisions is concerning.”

In 2013 and 2016, previous Sheriffs developed department guidelines to impose stricter discipline for certain types of deputy misconduct, including unreported uses of force and dishonesty. The changes had been recommended by the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence (CCJV) and mandated by federal settlements.

The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) challenged those guidelines before the County Employee Relations Commission (ERCOM), and Sheriff Villanueva used that to justify the decision to rehire his campaign aide.

LA County Domestic Violence Council Executive Director Eve Sheedy and Civilian Oversight Commission Executive Director Brian Williams. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors.

Today’s Board’s motion instructed County Counsel to report on the merits of appealing the final ERCOM decision. It also instructed the Sheriff – only upon the resolution of all legal issues – to work with the Civilian Oversight Commission for the Sheriff’s Department, the Inspector General, County Counsel and other stakeholders to implement an objective protocol to evaluate previously-imposed employee discipline. The Board is to be notified whenever the Department requests to reinstate previously discharged employees and the Inspector General will monitor all the Sheriff’s disciplinary actions.

“To date, we feel the Department’s leadership has essentially been playing a shell game of misinformation on this topic (of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission),” Interim Inspector General Rod Castro Silva told the Board “The Department’s process – whatever it’s called – must be, at a minimum, transparent, objective and evidence-based, and my office must continue to be involved in monitoring the Department’s disciplinary decisions and reporting back to the Board.”

“We are concerned about the erosion of public trust in the department and in the system,” CoC Executive Director Brian Williams testified. “We support continued reform, public engagement, impartiality, transparency and accountability – let’s put a bright light once again on that star that every deputy wears every day so bravely and so proudly.”

Civilian Oversight Commission member and Peace Over Violence Executive Director Patti Giggans with YWCA of Greater Los Angeles CEO Faye Washington. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors.

“The situation with LASD is a crisis of confusion, chaos, obfuscation, secret societies and hidden agendas,” CoC Commissioner and Peace Over Violence executive director Patti Giggans said. “I continue to be shocked and incredulous that a deputy fired for serious accusations of domestic violence would be rehired and given back his gun and badge. How do victims reconcile that this Sheriff’s Department will take the crime of domestic violence seriously and that victim/survivors will be protected and treated appropriately?”

“Law enforcement is often the first responder to victims of domestic violence, and the arrogance of the Sheriff’s actions will erode the trust of those victims,” said YWCA of Greater Los Angeles CEO Faye Washington. “Victims have every right to believe the person wearing the badge is there to help, and not possibly do harm. Let’s protect all survivors by holding their abusers accountable and not changing the rules of the game.”

“According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 56 percent of domestic violence incidents are reported to police,” said Eve Sheedy, executive director of the County’s Domestic Violence Council. “If we are seeking to create an environment which encourages crime victims to call the police, then we must have a system that ensures a caller will feel supported and protected. When the credibility of a domestic violence victim is belatedly and summarily dismissed (as in the Mandoyan case), the message sent to other victims is clear: you will not be believed.”

Aditi Fruitwala, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a tool for “cronyism.” She said, “Villanueva’s Commission is a façade to permit him to make unilateral decisions to reinstate his friends and provide them with years of backpay. Villanueva’s refusal to rescind Mandoyan’s reinstatement – even after the County determined that the reinstatement was illegal – demonstrates a blatant, arrogant disregard for the law and the authority of this Board and the County; and echoes the typical response of a powerful man who believes he’s above the law.”

Board of Supervisors hears testimony on motion about Sheriff’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.