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Defund the Sheriffs, Too

The corrupt and abusive Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is just one of many in America that have evaded oversight.

Los Angeles county sheriff’s deputies watch a June 28 protest against the killing of Andres Guardado, who was shot to death by LASD deputies.

The Father’s Day demonstration started peacefully. Earlier this month, Andres Guardado’s family led thousands of marchers to the Compton sheriff’s station, where they called for an independent investigation into his fatal shooting. Less than 72 hours earlier, Guardado, who was just 18, had been killed by a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff outside the Gardena auto body shop where he worked. One deputy shot the teenager in the torso at least six times before he died; his family believes he was shot in the back. None of the deputies at the scene were wearing body cameras, and a witness told the local outlet L.A. Taco that deputies destroyed cameras and surveillance footage. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department then placed a “security hold” on Guardado’s autopsy, barring his cause of death and report from being released to the public.

Helicopters have circled over dozens of L.A.-area protests recently, but during this one a sheriff’s department helicopter reportedly was broadcasting menacing messages. “We don’t want to see your children hurt,” someone in the copter said from a loudspeaker, according to The Los Angeles Times. One protest attendee recalled hearing, “You don’t want your kids to grow up to be troublemakers like these people,” while another recorded a deputy working to agitate the crowd. Deputies on the ground then deployed tear gas, flashbangs, and pepper balls and shot rubber bullets at the demonstrators, creating chaos. (The LASD did not respond to a request for comment.)

The LASD’s actions that day only hinted at its 170-year history of brutality, racism, deception, and disrespect for those it has sworn to serve. The department—the largest sheriff’s department in the world, with 18,000 employees—is famously corrupt, but it is not an outlier in that respect. There are more than 3,000 sheriff’s departments in the United States, and though many have engaged in the same type of corruption and abuse of force practiced by cops, they receive less public attention. As cities like Minneapolis attempt to reform their police departments, activists are looking to do the same to sheriff’s departments. That may be a greater challenge, given their historic lack of oversight and media coverage of their misconduct and the fact they’re not accountable to mayors and city councils in the way that police departments are. But there’s also reason for hope: Most sheriffs ultimately answer to voters.

The list of the LASD’s abuses is too extensive to display in its entirety. In 2013, the FBI issued a slew of indictments against former and current deputies for “beating jail inmates and visitors,” “trying to intimidate an FBI agent,” and a “wide scope of illegal conduct.” In 2017, an L.A. Times investigation revealed that, three years earlier, the LASD had kept a secret “Brady list” of hundreds of deputies with histories of misconduct. The behavior documented was stunning: A deputy molested a 14-year-old girl he had been called to assist after a knife attack; a deputy pepper-sprayed an elderly man in the face and then wrote a false report in order to arrest him; and a deputy forced a stranger to perform oral sex on him in his squad car, to name just a few examples. Yet some of the deputies listed were still working within the department and testifying in criminal cases.

In 2019, the FBI opened an investigation into the LASD’s myriad violent “deputy gangs,” violent and secretive deputies’ groups that have been in operation since the 1970s. Some reforms were made that same year, when California’s “Right to Know” Act went into effect—an effort led by California civil society organizations, news institutes, and news outlets, including The Sacramento Bee and The L.A. Times, which sued the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department after it refused to release relevant records. Earlier this year, thanks to organizing by Reform L.A. Jails, Los Angeles voters passed a ballot measure supporting subpoena power for the LASD’s civilian oversight commission and its creation of a plan to reduce jail populations. Without the sustained pressure these organizations exerted, these reforms would not have happened; many sheriff’s departments in the state, including LASD, have resisted transparency at every turn.

Many other sheriff’s departments merit similar scrutiny but are rarely subject to it. Jessica Pishko, a senior counsel at the Justice Collaborative, cautions that any large county, such as Los Angeles, will have a very different sheriff’s department than a suburb or rural town. But one structural issue that extends across most sheriff’s departments is that deputies have the power to conduct law enforcement on the street and run the jails, a level of authority that invites abuse. Perhaps as a result, in many rural counties, jail populations have increased dramatically over the past decade. “You shouldn’t have the person in charge of street patrols, SWAT teams, and search warrants be the same person who controls who is brought to jails and under what conditions they’re treated when they get there,” Pishko told me. In 41 California counties, the sheriff can also perform the duties of the coroner.

The differences between sheriff’s departments help to insulate them from reform. “Sheriff’s department funding structures, as well as their duties, change from county to county,” says University of Oklahoma assistant professor Lindsey Meeks, who recently released a first-of-its-kind academic study on local media coverage of sheriff’s departments. “The fact that they’re not uniform across the board definitely makes them harder to organize around than police departments—and it makes it harder for citizens to intervene in sheriff’s department processes.”

There is also relatively little existing scholarship on sheriff’s departments for researchers to draw from. “There is a very small group of academics doing this work,” Meeks says. “In our culture, there’s a strong emphasis on police and policing. When we talk about law enforcement, we tend to group sheriffs under the ‘police umbrella’ without recognizing they’re distinct entities.”

County sheriffs are typically elected to office, unlike appointed city police chiefs. (Sheriffs are appointed in Rhode Island, Hawaii, and a few scattershot counties, like Denver and Miami-Dade.) But Meeks found that local news coverage of sheriff candidates and departments is generally paltry, and sheriff elections occurring in presidential election years receive even less comprehensive coverage than in off-years. Heading into November, many Americans don’t know much about their local sheriff’s responsibilities and how their department is organized—and they’re unlikely to happen upon that information in their local news coverage.

Unless, that is, the sheriff’s abuses of power are so flagrant that they’re impossible to ignore. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio outfitted the hundreds of prisoners he oversaw in all pink as they toiled at his “Tent City” jail in sweltering weather. (“Even if it was a concentration camp, what difference does it make? I still survived. I still kept getting re-elected,” Arpaio told The Guardian.)

While Arpaio may be America’s most infamous sheriff, he’s far from the only one who takes such a callous approach. In Denver, a deputy was filmed punching a man in a wheelchair, for which he had already been cleared of wrongdoing: A city employee was so frustrated by the Department of Public Safety’s handling of the investigation that she recently risked her job to raise the case to the media—and was subsequently put on leave. In Washington’s Snohomish County, Sheriff Adam Fortney celebrated his election this year by quickly reinstating three deputies who had been removed for excessive use of force. In Alabama’s Etowah County, one sheriff took advantage of an old law that enabled him to make extra money by feeding prisoners less—and bought a beach house with it. “[Alabama] law says it’s a personal account and that’s the way I’ve always done it and that’s the way the law reads and that’s the way I do business,” he told The Birmingham News in 2018.

While county governments tend to approve their sheriff’s departments’ annual budgets, which can easily surpass $1 billion in big cities, they have no concrete management authority over the sheriff or deputies. That means there are more than 350,000 sworn and civilian officers across the country who are, often by design of state law, barely supervised. “You want my badge number?” one LASD deputy allegedly told an onlooker on June 2, as deputies arrested more than 120 peaceful demonstrators. “It’s one two three four five.”

Had the taunter been a police officer, the onlooker could have reported him to the police commission, which has regulatory power over the Los Angeles Police Department. (Whether the police commission exercises that power is another question, but the power is granted.) As the taunter was a deputy sheriff, that demonstrator’s best options may have been to report the officer to the Board of Supervisors or the sheriff civilian oversight commission. L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has frequently defied the former, and refused to testify in front of the latter (even when presented with a subpoena).

While that civilian oversight committee has pushed for (and achieved some) department reforms since its 2016 inception, it only has advisory, not regulatory, powers. “We can’t make anybody do anything,” committee chair Patti Giggans told me. “The police department commission can [oversee the police department]; they can set policy.”

“The truth is that there is systemic racism and abuse of force. Law enforcement has too much power and not enough accountability, which means that the [Drug Enforcement Administration], the judges, and the whole criminal justice system are responsible, too,” Giggans added. “The system is the villain; we’ve got to shake it off and make it better. And in order to do that, we need civilian oversight.”