LOS ANGELES – Decisions to fire as many as 400 deputies need to be reconsidered, but review by a “Truth and Reconciliation” panel is on hold, Sheriff Alex Villanueva told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
“They’re pretty much frozen right now,” Villanueva said of the panel’s work. “We actually do listen, despite what you read in the press.”
However, the Office of Inspector General accused the Sheriff’s Department of “essentially playing a shell game of misinformation,” making it difficult to know what decisions were being made.
The face-off came as Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended instructing Villanueva to stop unilaterally reinstating fired deputies until all related legal questions have been resolved. His motion, co-authored by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and unanimously approved by the board, also directed county lawyers to determine whether the sheriff’s Truth and Reconciliation panel is legal.
The county, which has limited authority over the elected sheriff, filed suit last week seeking to void his decision to reinstate Caren Carl Mandoyan. He was fired in 2016 after being accused of domestic violence and his termination was upheld by the Civil Service Commission. The county is arguing that the sheriff doesn’t have the authority to override the commission’s decision.
Villanueva says he wants to right wrongs created when new standards of discipline were put in place. Those standards have been challenged by the union representing rank-and-file deputies and a hearing officer of the Employee Relations Commission found they were prematurely implemented.
“Somewhere along the line someone decided that moving the goal posts was acceptable” without meeting with the union, Villanueva said.
Stricter punishment for deputy misconduct was implemented by both Sheriff Lee Baca and McDonnell based on recommendations from the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence.
Villanueva characterized those changes as “trying to chop off as many heads as possible to then claim to be a reformer,” while the board and criminal justice advocates worried about reverting to 2012 standards.
“You seem to be very pleased to go back to the 2012 rules and I think that sends a terrible message,” Kuehl told the sheriff.
Interim Inspector General Rod Castro-Silva told the board, “We’re continuing to hear that internal investigations are being deactivated at a troubling rate.”
The sheriff said there has been “a sea of change” since he took office because deputies trust the department to treat them fairly. “All across the county, deputies are excited to go to work and they feel like what they’re doing matters … they’re actually policing themselves … the so-called word on the yard is ‘don’t mess it up.”‘
Supervisor Kathryn Barger agreed that Villanueva has the respect of department personnel and there are some deputies who deserve a second chance. But Barger, who is married to a former sheriff’s deputy, also said she reviewed the evidence about Mandoyan and stands by the decision to fight his reinstatement.
She said it was unfortunate that the evidence couldn’t be made public.
“It’s frustrating because it’s my word versus your word,” Barger said.
According to the Los Angeles Times, a fellow deputy alleged Mandoyan grabbed her by the neck, tried to break into her home and sent her harassing text messages. Prosecutors investigated the woman’s claims but declined to charge Mandoyan.
Kuehl said the fight over the reinstatement wasn’t personal.
“We are willing to fight where we need to …. but we are also very willing to work with you where we can,” Kuehl said.
Villanueva said he also hoped to resolve issues informally.
“I don’t think we need to spend taxpayer dollars on it,” he said. “The board fighting against the Sheriff’s Department does not improve public safety for anyone.”
The county’s bid for immediate action to remove Mandoyan failed, with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff ruling last week that Mandoyan’s continued employment did not pose an emergency and setting a hearing for June 26. The judge also questioned whether the board can interfere in the sheriff’s hiring decisions, drawing a distinction between rehiring and reinstating a fired employee.
Assistant Sheriff Maria Gutierrez, who oversees countywide operations, told the board no other deputies had been reinstated to her knowledge.
But the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation panel remain unclear.
Villanueva said it wasn’t a commission, but a panel, and is still in the process of being established based on feedback from the OIG and the Civilian Oversight Commission. A separate ad hoc committee vetted, but did not rule on, six personnel cases, according to the sheriff.
That committee was made up entirely of employees who could be fired at will by the sheriff, Castro-Silva said.
The OIG didn’t hear about the sheriff’s Truth and Reconciliation panel until Jan. 31, nearly two months after Villanueva was sworn in and well after Mandoyan was reinstated.
“The process by which cases are being selected and then reviewed is shrouded in mystery,” Castro-Silva said.
Criminal justice advocates condemned the new appeals panel.
Aditi Fruitwala, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, reminded the board of the history of the truth and reconciliation commission in post-apartheid South Africa.
“Using the term truth and reconciliation is not only disingenuous, it is deeply offensive,” Fruitwala said, accusing the sheriff of using the panel “to pay back his friends and entrench his own power.”
Many other people, including some deputies in plainclothes, spoke out in support of the sheriff and the new appeals panel, including a female former deputy who said she was victimized by the department’s personnel rules.
One woman highlighted the board’s lack of authority over the elected sheriff.
“I want to remind you that you are not his boss, we are,” she said. “Support our sheriff.”