By Martin Macias Jr.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to freeze Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s internal review of cases in which officers were terminated or disciplined for misconduct over concerns the process lacks transparency and could erode public trust.
The board has criticized Villanueva for reinstating Caren Carl Mandoyan, an officer who was named in – though never convicted of – domestic violence charges in 2016, shortly after taking office.
The rehiring decision also sparked a county lawsuit seeking an emergency court order that Mandoyan turn in his badge and gun since the county considered him a terminated employee – but a judge refused to grant the order.
Villanueva continued to insist Mandoyan was still on the force, criticizing the county’s officer misconduct review process as flawed.
Supervisors expressed their frustration at a public meeting Tuesday and said Villanueva’s Truth and Reconciliation Panel could turn the clock back on officer oversight and accountability reforms.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the decision to rehire Mandoyan – who was accused of abusing a partner and trying to break into her home – sends a message to survivors of domestic violence that law enforcement will question the credibility of their stories.
“We don’t want that to be the prevailing message to survivors in the county,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, striking a conciliatory tone, said the board could settle the matter informally with the sheriff but that the county’s lawsuit is still pending.
Addressing Villanueva, she said, “We are willing to fight where we need to understand your legal authority. But we are also very willing to work with you.”
Villanueva told supervisors that his panel would like to review at least 400 officer termination cases in which evidence was not fully presented or the “context for conduct was not fully vetted.”
The sheriff said the uptick in officer terminations has mostly impacted officers of color and has impeded the department’s recruitment efforts since candidates fear they won’t be afforded due process.
“Procedural justice is a right that everyone should have access to,” Villanueva said. “We’re demanding from our employees that which isn’t given to them.”
The board approved Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl’s motion Tuesday instructing Villanueva to freeze his review process until the county can determine whether he can legally overturn rulings by the Civil Service Commission County Appeals Board, which handles officer misconduct.
It also calls for a county counsel report on the “legality” of Villanueva’s proposed panel and instructs the inspector general to report monthly to the board on the panel’s development.
The motion said Villanueva “has been acting unilaterally” and that the county counsel has “exclusive authority” over civil actions involving department officers and the sheriff.
“The lack of clarity around a process for making what appears to be swift and consequential decisions is concerning,” the motion said.
LA County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff – who declined to grant the county’s request to order Mandoyan to turn in his badge and gun – said on March 6 that he could not rule on Villanueva’s legal authority to rehire Mandoyan until he received more information.
Villanueva said Tuesday that he has already put his panel’s process on hold until departmental oversight can review it.
He added that his department has submitted a “third draft” of his proposal for the scope of the review process – and that the panel has “vetted six cases but not presented them” – while also claiming the “panel is not in existence right now.”
County Interim Inspector General Rod Castro-Silva said his office only received a one-and-a-half page draft of the proposed review panel at the end of January, but that the Mandoyan reinstatement decision occurred much earlier.
“The decision was made at least by the end of December 2018,” Castro-Silva said. “And it was made by an ad hoc group of executives within the department that report directly to the sheriff.”
Castro-Silva said his office heard that Villanueva’s panel is considering reviewing at least 400 officer termination cases and that it has begun shutting down internal affairs investigations.
“By what process it is being done is unclear,” Castro-Silva said. “This department is playing a shell game of misinformation on this topic. The process, whatever it’s called, must be at a minimum transparent, objective and evidence-based.”
A department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on whether internal affairs investigations have been postponed.
“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,” LA County Board of Supervisors Chair Janice Hahn said in a statement. “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.”
The over 17,000-member department provides services to a county of more than 10 million while also providing security at county courthouses and the county jail system, the largest in the country.