Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Image from department video

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra announced Friday he is launching a civil rights investigation that will seek to determine whether the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department engaged in unconstitutional policing.

The California Department of Justice investigation of the largest sheriff’s department in the country comes on the heels of allegations of excessive force, retaliation and other misconduct, as well as a number of recent reported incidents involving LASD management and personnel.

The action also comes in response to the absence of “sustained and comprehensive oversight” of LASD’s operations, according to Becerra, who said there was no tipping point in prompting the probe. He did not say how far back the investigation would go.

In a tweet, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he looked forward to the investigation.

“Our department may finally have an impartial, objective assessment of our operations, and recommendations on any areas we can improve our service to the community,” he said. “During my administration, we have routinely requested the State Office of the Attorney General to monitor our investigations, and we will provide immediate access to all information in our possession. We are eager to get this process started, in the interest of transparency and accountability.”

Under the California Constitution and California Civil Code section 52.3, the AG is authorized to conduct civil investigations into whether a law enforcement agency has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating state or federal law.

As opposed to a criminal investigation into an individual incident or incidents, a pattern or practice investigation typically works to identify and, as appropriate, ultimately address potentially systemic violations of the constitutional rights of the community at large by a law enforcement agency.

“Those of us in positions of public trust know that the job comes with the solemn obligation to be accountable to the people we serve,” Becerra said. “Because of the nature of the work involved in law enforcement, that duty of care is heightened. There are serious concerns and reports that accountability and adherence to legitimate policing practices have lapsed at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. We are undertaking this investigation to determine if LASD has violated the law or the rights of the people of Los Angeles County.”

With regards to LASD, the AG has made no determinations at this time about specific complaints or allegations or about the agency’s policies and practices. Becerra said he “hopes” the department cooperates in the probe.

“We want to put word out to the public” for any useful, credible information that could be provided, Becerra said, adding that the probe is “very broad and wide-ranging.”

Andres Kwon, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, welcomed the announcement.

“We applaud the attorney general for answering the call by grassroots groups and the families of those killed by sheriff’s deputies to launch an investigation into the pattern of unconstitutional policing by Sheriff Villanueva and the LASD,” he said in a statement.

“The investigation should address past and ongoing misconduct, but more remains to be done. The L.A. Board of Supervisors must act to strengthen accountability and transparency of LASD for the future, including by seeking to amend the county charter to give the board the power to impeach and remove sheriffs who violate public trust, obstruct oversight and sanction unconstitutional policing,” he said.

In an October letter urging an investigation, the ACLU SoCal, among other groups, contended that the sheriff’s department under Villanuev, had sought to undermine “basic accountability and civilian oversight at every turn and systematically violating state transparency laws.”

The AG’s office asked anyone with information relevant to the investigation to contact DOJ’s Civil Rights Enforcement Section at Police-Practices@doj.ca.gov. DOJ attorneys and special agents will consider all relevant information, including from community members and organizations, local officials, oversight entities, the LASD and individual officers.

Last month, following an extensive investigation, Becerra secured an agreement to reform a wide range of practices at the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Last year, following significant misuse, he revoked access to CalGang records created by the Los Angeles Police Department.

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