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Op-Ed: We Need to Abolish the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

Reform is not an option for this law enforcement organization.

It is difficult to know, with certainty, how much harm the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has inflicted on the people they have sworn to protect over their 171-year history. To truly understand the amount of money stolen, bones broken, and lives lost in LA County as the result of deputy violence would take lifetimes of research.

But whatever rough figures you’re calculating in your head right now, I can promise you one thing: you are grossly underestimating what the LASD is capable of. 

For the past six months, I’ve worked with Cerise Castle as an editor on her groundbreaking 15-article series: “A Tradition of Violence: The History of Deputy Gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.” When Cerise first approached Knock LA with her pitch, originally conceived as a single article reporting on a list the County keeps of gang-related LASD lawsuit payouts, I believed I understood the scope of the story. Propped up by gormless bullies like current Sheriff Alex Villanueva, gang members in the LASD were allowed to – literally – get away with murder, costing taxpayers millions and the families of victims immeasurably more. 

But as our research went on and the piece evolved, it became increasingly clear how ignorant I was. Not only was the deputy gang story much, much longer than I expected (even now it’s far from complete, someone needs to fund Cerise so she can write books about it), but we continually discovered new, horrifying details that were outside the scope of our investigation. Our team was focused exclusively on finding information we could credibly link to gangs like the Banditos, Vikings, and 3000 Boys. So, for example, when we read a report from the Office of Independent Review (OIR) – a civilian oversight group that monitored the LASD from 2002 to 2013 – which claimed a sergeant “forced [his] ex-wife to engage in oral copulation,” we had to skip over that, regardless of the fact that the sergeant in question faced no disciplinary action.

A pit opens up in the bottom of my stomach whenever I think about the mental gymnastics required to invent the sanitized phrase “forced oral copulation” to describe rape. If you want to more fully understand Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil,” then read the thousands of pages of reports detailing misconduct in the LASD. Go ahead. They’re publicly available.

You will read about many, many more officers raping people. You will read about officers torturing prisoners, shattering their ribs and orbital bones. You will read about extortion, animal abuse, and murder. You will see almost all of these crimes go unpunished. And all of this will be described to you with the clinical vagueness of a Netflix episode description. Then you’ll remember that we only started publicly tracking these abuses recently, in the past 30 years or so. And you’ll realize that these are only the reported incidents, the ones that leaked through cracks in the blue wall of silence. You will feel the weight of a mountain of unrecorded evil pressing on your chest. 

People in power in LA have known about this for decades. That’s the thing that sticks with me from investigating the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the thing I think about when I wake up at 2 AM, sweating.

Everyone knows. Nothing has changed.

To describe the culture of abuse and corruption within the LASD as an “open secret” for County, State, and Federal officials is an embarrassment to the phrase. More accurately, keeping this gross misconduct under wraps has been normalized by everyone in County leadership. In a 2014 letter to the LA County Board of Supervisors, Michael Gennaco (the Chief Attorney of the OIR) wrote, “My experience is that merely expecting that LASD will adhere to objective principles and hold its members accountable for violations of policy simply will not work. There is probably no more stubborn aspect of law enforcement culture than the reluctance to hold sworn officers accountable when they violate the organization’s expectations.” 

One recipient of that letter, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, said six years later that the murder of Dijon Kizzee by LASD employees provided Sheriff Villanueva the chance to “prove he can conduct himself in a proper manner.” Ridley-Thomas also wrote a strongly-worded motion about LASD oversight in response to Kizzee’s murder, as well as the killing of Andrés Guardado. Two weeks ago, on March 14, 2021, the LASD killed another person

It’s a cycle. There will be a major public incident, like the arrest of Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka on federal obstruction of justice charges. Politicians will perform outrage, claiming they knew nothing and will employ all of their resources to root out corruption and finally fix the department. Then the media frenzy dies down, deputies start maiming and killing with impunity again until they do something too egregious to hide, and the cycle repeats.

We can no longer allow those in power to feign ignorance and employ empty gestures. This is not the time to offer the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department the benefit of the doubt. They have had nearly two centuries of second chances, toothless oversight, and requests for reports back. In return, we’ve received corpses. 

To be clear, there is a reason the LASD is allowed to act with impunity. Or, rather, two reasons so inextricably tied together in the history of this County that they might as well be one: structural racism and structural classism. The LASD largely polices communities of color, enforcing the law in unincorporated LA County as well as contracting out services to cities like Compton and Pico Rivera. They run our jails, too, which are disproportionately populated by non-white inmates. The Sheriff’s Department is also charged with evicting tenants throughout the County, including in the City of LA.

So, if you (or your campaign donors) are interested in making sure poor people can be efficiently removed from their apartments under threat of violence, you need to keep the LASD happy. If you want an armed force that keeps Black and Brown people in line (or, at least, out of your neighborhood), you need to keep the LASD happy. And if you don’t have a horse in that race, if you’re a major media organization or powerful politician unconcerned with the struggles of those communities, then why bother kicking the hornet’s nest in the first place?  

It is true that the County Board of Supervisors cannot directly remove the Sheriff from office, nor do they have the power to fire deputies en masse. But they do control LASD’s budget. If they were so inclined, they could reduce the budget of the LASD (around $3.5 billion annually, depending on who you ask) to $0. They could effectively blink the Sheriff’s Department out of existence overnight. 

I understand that may sound like an extreme option to some people, so I want to be direct: there is no scenario I can imagine that would effectively reform the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Culturally, organizationally, and practically, allowing the LASD to continue to operate will only make our communities less safe. We need to radically re-imagine the way we approach public safety in the County, and decades of false starts and half measures have proven that incremental reform is not a viable option. 

There are, however, some things you can begin organizing around immediately while pressuring the County to abolish the LASD: 

But don’t lose sight of the overall goal: we need to abolish the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. If we do not shut them down, they will kill more people.