The Pervasive Violence of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department
Several recent killings have put the spotlight on the largest sheriff’s department in the U.S., but many of the LASD’s abuses go unseen, advocates say.
On the night of June 3, Mari Drake was arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) for breaking a countywide curfew in order to protest police violence toward Black people. For several hours, she sat in a sheriff’s wagon with 40 other women, ziptied and unable to move. People sang songs to pass the time.
Drake was one of a handful of Black protesters on the wagon. “I was just tired and ready to go home,” she told The Appeal. But when she was finally led off the wagon a little before 4 a.m., a female deputy started searching her aggressively, reaching her hand into her underwear. Drake asked her why.
The deputy responded with shocking force, Drake said. She dragged Drake toward the wagon, throwing her up against its metal side as several other deputies joined her. Then, they pushed Drake to the ground, grinding her face into the concrete. She screamed that she couldn’t breathe. (The sheriff’s department did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment about the incident.)
“They put their knees into my back—after everything we had been protesting,” Drake said. When they finally pulled her to her feet, she was upset. One of the deputies told her she was just being dramatic. “Calm down,” Drake recalled him saying. He told Drake that she had thrown herself to the ground.
In the past two weeks, the LASD has drawn attention for a series of violent clashes between protesters and police. On Sept. 8, deputies fired “nonlethal rounds” at demonstrators who had gathered to demand justice for Dijon Kizzee, a Black man who was shot and killed by two LASD deputies on Aug. 31. On Saturday, after an unknown suspect shot two deputies in their squad car, KPCC reporter Josie Huang was violently arrested outside the hospital where the officers were being treated. Huang released video footage the following day that contradicted the LASD’s account of the arrest.
Political leaders condemned the shooting of the two deputies: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called it “unconscionable” and President Trump suggested that the shooter receive the death penalty. But no similar public outcry has come after Kizzee’s death, nor that of Andrés Guardado, an 18-year-old Salvadoran American security guard who was shot in the back by a sheriff’s deputy in June.
The killings of Guardado and Kizzee, the resulting violence, and recent revelations about gang activity within the department have shed new light on LASD’s practices. Local advocates argue that these latest developments are representative of a long and troubled history toward the people LASD is sworn to protect—especially Black and Latinx residents of Los Angeles County.
“On the one hand, we’re glad that the conversation is there now,” said Lex Steppling, the director of campaigns and policy at the LA-based advocacy organization Dignity and Power Now. “On the other hand, every single day we’re still watching people get killed and brutalized.”
Though sheriff’s rangers were the first official law enforcement to patrol the streets of Los Angeles, today they take a symbolic back seat to the LAPD, a police force notorious for its racism and brutality not just in LA but throughout the world.
“The sheriff’s department isn’t top of mind, despite the fact that they operate the largest jail in the country, and they’re still one of the largest police forces in the state and in the country,” Priscilla Ocen told The Appeal. Ocen, a professor at Loyola Law School and former civil rights attorney, is one of nine community members who currently sits on the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, which was created in 2016 to monitor the department.
The LASD’s jurisdiction and funding conspire to preserve its low profile, Ocen said. The department patrols unincorporated areas of LA County and cities without their own police force; its budget is controlled by the County Board of Supervisors, not the Los Angeles City Council.
But the LASD is also in the habit of actively stonewalling any attempts to peer into its inner workings. A former county sheriff, Lee Baca, is currently in federal prison for his role in blockading an FBI investigation into mistreatment and abuse within the department, and the head sheriff, Alex Villanueva, recently defied a subpoena from the Civilian Oversight Commission to testify about jail conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ocen herself speaks plainly about the limits of the Civilian Oversight Commission’s influence: “We simply don’t have the authority to do the kind of work that the public thinks we do,” she said.
LASD is entangled in a litany of scandals: gang affiliations, on-duty sexual assaults, and the hiring and rehiring of deputies accused of misconduct and domestic violence. In recent days, Spectrum News 1 obtained and reported on the sworn testimony of an LASD whistleblower, Deputy Art Gonzalez, who alleges that the deputy who shot and killed Guardado in June was seeking entry into a LASD clique called the “Executioners.”
In a claim filed against LA County, Gonzalez says that the gang has set illegal arrest quotas, intentionally used deadly force against civilians, and celebrated doing so by getting tattooed, sometimes with Nazi-related imagery. According to Gonzalez’s attorney, Alan Romero, three other whistleblowers have corroborated his allegations; former Undersheriff Larry Waldie and two deputies who wish to remain anonymous have all filed similar claims against the county.
Sheriff Villanueva “is unable and unwilling to take ownership of the gangs in the department,” Romero told The Appeal. He also confirmed that one of the deputies recently found a dead rat on his doorstep. All four whistleblowers, Romero told The Appeal, fear retaliation for speaking out against the LASD’s abuses. “The sheriff’s department has provided zero protection to any of the whistleblowers and has not investigated the dead rat incident,” he added. (LASD also declined to respond to a request for comment regarding Romero’s allegations.)
Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies and police have been responsible for hundreds of civilian killings since 2000, as an LA Times database details. Additionally, an ABC7 data analysis of LASD interactions with civilians during 2018 and 2019 found that Black Angelenos are more than twice as likely to be stopped as white Angelenos, and significantly more likely to be handcuffed, removed from their vehicle, have a gun pointed at them, or be searched—even as those searches found Black people in possession of illegal material less frequently than white people.
Many of the LASD’s abuses of power are obscured from the general public because they happen behind jail walls, noted Steppling of Dignity and Power Now.
“We’ve been working for a long time around issues of what we call state violence,” Steppling told The Appeal. “What other people might call police brutality,” he continued, “goes beyond what has been captured in videos on the street.”
John Thomas Horton III is one name that will not be found in the LA Times database of police and sheriff killings. Horton died in the LA Men’s Central Jail in 2009, under Baca’s tenure as sheriff. Horton’s mother, Helen Jones, alleges that he was beaten to death by deputies. The sheriff’s department called it a suicide, but Jones says that’s a lie. “I know my son,” she told The Appeal. Not long before his death, she said, Horton told her that he was excited to get his jail time over with. He wanted to move on with his life and get back to his work as a musician and producer.
Jones settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the County Board of Supervisors in 2016. Today, she works with Dignity and Power Now to help counsel other families whose children have died in the sheriff’s custody. “There’s so many mothers I know for a fact that went to their graves knowing that their children did not hang themselves … and never got a chance to prove that, because it’s so hard to fight and win when it comes to law enforcement,” Jones told The Appeal. “It’s a double hurt.”
Dignity and Power Now is a member of two coalition groups, Coalition to End Sheriff Violence and Justice LA, that have been working behind the scenes for years to increase transparency and accountability, stop prison expansion, and end the mistreatment of prisoners in LA County jails. Though their comprehensive “Care First” budget, which would have reallocated LASD funding toward alternatives to incarceration, such as supportive housing and psychiatric mobile response teams, was not ultimately adopted by the County Board of Supervisors, the coalition also lobbied for and won the planned closure of the Men’s Central Jail in early July.
To Jones, the news was bittersweet. “It should have been torn down long ago,” she told The Appeal. “Our kids died there. So many lives have been lost there.” Jones noted, too, that the department’s culture of corruption and self-protection is deeply entrenched. Many deputies who served under Baca remain in their positions. “I feel ‘til you shake it from the bottom up, then you haven’t changed it yet,” she said.
Unlike Horton, Drake had witnesses. At least 40 other protesters heard her screaming and saw her tackled and pushed to the ground.
When Drake was finally released from custody, she demanded the badge number of the woman who’d attacked her. But the sheriff’s deputies refused to give it to her. “There were dozens of officers in that lot that witnessed what happened and willfully turned the other way,” she said. “That felt more dehumanizing and terrifying than anything.”
To Drake, there’s a clear connection between her assault, which deputies attempted to deny and minimize even though it was witnessed by dozens of observers, and the violence that the sheriff’s department tries to cover up elsewhere. “If I wasn’t surrounded by a bus full of protesters,” she said in a video recorded after her arrest, “I’m scared what would have happened to me. I might not be here.” She paused. “I might not be here if everybody wasn’t watching.”