Three years ago, voters in Los Angeles overwhelmingly supported the now elected Sheriff Alex Villanueva. He was set to replace Jim McDonnell, a sympathizer for anti-immigrant policies and a friend of LA’s political elite. Villanueva clamored about reform, but when it came down to the business of transformation he scandalized his position and amateurishly fumbled at every opportunity. Examples of his fumbles include the reinstatement of Deputy Caren “Carl” Mandoyan, who had been charged with assaulting his deputy and former girlfriend. This demonstrated questionable judgment and limited transparency.
Now, as the world faces a pandemic and Los Angeles grapples with devastating economic and political consequences, community members and allies are stepping up and mobilizing to ensure transparency from his department. They have one powerful weapon to wield toward justice.
In March voters approved Measure R to do just that. The measure won with 73% of support from Angelinos who expressed in many polls the need to expose and squash corruption and create more transparency and accountability.
The measure granted the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission the power to subpoena, to conduct investigations, and create a plan to reduce the jail population.
In the midst of COVID-19, there has never been a better time to use Measure R. We need to ensure the release of those unjustly arrested, of people with mental health problems and other vulnerable populations. Moreover, we need to ensure that all those who are released from LA County’s jail system have access to services and support needed to transition well. At this moment, these steps are about addressing health and safety, but beyond this moment it is about carving a path toward transparency and accountability.
Transparency and accountability are paramount given that Los Angeles County is the largest jail system in the country. Approximate 80% of the population is Black and Latino. This is concerning since it highlights the disproportionate arrest of people of color. Thus, we must look at the response to COVID-19 through a lens of health but also an issue of race. Since the pandemic reached our communities, there have been a series of stories and posts about the horrible conditions inside jail cells and a lack of response after repeated requests to release those who are inside. Jail sentences for Black and Latinos inside the jail system can become a death sentence if this is not addressed.
Villanueva has refused repeated requests to speak to the Civilian Oversight Commission and is not answering questions about what is happening inside the Los Angeles County jail system. Just a few days ago there were deaths inside a California prison in the neighboring San Bernardino county. This system is smaller than Los Angeles. According to LA Sheriff Department reports, they already have over 100 staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19, and almost 200 inmates. We need more answers. Lives are on the line, and it is necessary to steer LA County leaders towards actions that will save the lives of the jail population.
In a bold move and exercising their new powers, the Civilian Oversight Commission has called for Sheriff Villanueva to appear before them on May 21. This is a victory and a step toward accountability from a Sheriff who refuses to do everything possible to protect the lives of those under his custody. In a press release from the Reform LA Jails coalition, Mariela Alburges, the Director Implementation for Measure R said, “The Sheriff has not been transparent and has repeatedly lied to our community about the conditions inside. This subpoena is the first step in ensuring that we hold the Sheriff accountable and improve the conditions inside LA County Jails.”
Measure R was significant in taking the first step towards a more equitable justice system, but as we all know—power concedes nothing without a demand.
History has shown us that unjust systems and institutions will not wither away without a collective fight and struggle. We must not let up and continue to speak up and hold those in power accountable.
Armando Carmona is a partner at Tzunu Strategies. He tweets from @ArmandooCarmona.