The LASD RAND Report is Full of Words
Newsletter September 28, 2021
Last week, the RAND report on Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department gangs was released, prompting Villanueva to hold a press conference and call the report a big old waste of money that didn’t give him enough credit. (I’m paraphrasing. He actually said it was “political opportunism on steroids.”)
There’s a lot in the report; no surprise, since it’s over 200 pages. As a document, it’s a testament to the long-standing failure of elected leaders to put limits on the LASD as well as how the ability of sheriffs to avoid accountability has far-reaching consequences inside the biggest sheriff’s office in America.
The RAND report is far from perfect. It scrupulously avoids the word “gangs” in an attempt to be more administratively palatable to all parties, choosing instead “subgroups,” which has the advantage of being as verbally neutral as possible. Likewise, the report approaches the topic with a neutrality that verges on obscene naiveite, calling gangs a “phenomena” as if they were naturally occurring rather than the result of a masculine, war-like culture that has been present in law enforcement since…well…California was a state. And, of course, the RAND report buries everything in an avalanche of big words, abbreviations, an appendix of abbreviations, and other appendices. Such a plethora of documentation allows individuals to draw their own conclusions by cherry-picking all too easily. For example, Villanueva could argue the report was inconsistent – which he did – because in the course of 200-plus pages there will be slight contradictions anyone can amplify.
Despite this, the RAND report does tell a story, which I think is its most useful contribution. Because it’s not part of a lawsuit and because the sources are anonymous, it provides a kind of detail and thoroughness that is hard to get. And, because it is so long and cloaked in a kind of institutional blandness, its very presence is already the answer anyone needs. I mean, if there isn’t a problem, then why is the report so dang long?
The RAND report’s storyline braids together different problems within policing and sheriffs’ departments overall. First, there is the ever-present problem of culture. As the RAND report points out, gangs within paramilitary organizations are not unusual. I encountered something similar when I reported on harassment among groups of prison guards in California. In my interviews, I saw just how devastating the impact of workplace harassment and exclusion are — not just suicide, but paranoia, secrecy, and gossip, and a lot of it centered on denigrating women or any others who had some sort of difference or vulnerability. My personal takeaway: distrust anything sexual a group of war-like men tell you about the women they work with.
Warring factions of armed officers highlight just how pervasive the macho culture is among these groups of men. (While there are female sworn deputies, they are less than 20% of all sworn deputies even though the LASD has made policies to ensure the advancement of these women.) The danger is heightened because of the pressure from management to make arrests, a permissiveness regarding excessive violence used to make those arrests, and the need to “keep situations under control” in jail settings. Much of the RAND report substantiates that being “tough” or seeking additional physical altercations are seen as a good thing, not something to be avoided. So, if the gangs are anything, they are indicative of a policing culture in which reform is really not possible to the extent that those doing the work still have no perception that they are doing anything incorrectly. This part of the report was the most disturbing to me — the casual insistence that “top performers” would seek arrests — despite the decades of work by well-meaning activists and professionals to persuade law enforcement officers to believe the opposite. Do the gangs cause this view or does this view cause the gangs?
Perhaps the answer to the question is that both feed off of each other. The vast majority of deputies did not think LASD gangs were a concern; most thought them neutral or good. So, then, is there an LASD without deputy gangs? How can the process of separating the deputies from the entrenched culture of gangs begin when the gangs themselves define what makes a “good” cop?
And, finally, the “us versus them” attitude of law enforcement – e.g. the “thin blue line” – makes all civilians potential casualties or liabilities. Policing is not a service industry; rather, the public becomes obstacles to be outsmarted or defeated. (There’s probably something to be said about the deep influence of militarization, which includes the recruitment of veterans, the increased amount of weaponry, and the paramilitary structure of law enforcement departments where people are supposed to obey orders rather than make complex, moral decisions.)
The RAND report pointed out a few things I have been thinking about that are peculiar to sheriffs’ departments. For one thing, in the LASD, like many sheriffs’ offices, new deputies start off working inside the jails, which are already a place fraught with violence. The population of the jail is disproportionately Black and Brown, which lends itself to racially discriminatory treatment and use of violence. According to the RAND report, this is where the gang culture begins – newbie deputies start to show off and/ or kiss up to superiors in order to get better assignments. (And, sometimes, seek physical altercation with people inside the jail in order to look tough.) Deputies who do not go along with it risk “bad” assignments or they risk not getting back-up when they need it. Further, as the RAND report points out, the only route to advancement is patrol; that tends to create a culture where people working inside the jails – arguably, a place that is extremely dangerous for those being held against their will – is denigrated and deemed unimportant.
The RAND report also notes the perverse incentives of seeing working inside jails as a training ground. One deputy said, “Custody allows you to grow, gain confidence, and get streetwise, and learn the tricks of the trade of the guys on the street.” So, rather than seeing jail as a dangerous and high-risk environment for this being held there, deputies see it as a “learning” opportunity to understand how “criminals” think. This is all very contrary to any view of progressive policing, so much as it exists, and, I think, indicates why sheriffs’ offices are harder to reform.
Second, gang culture continues to fester because there is no excellent way to evaluate a deputy’s performance or aptitude without relying on a good old boy culture of advancement. This isn’t novel and happens in every workplace I have seen – you make good with the people who can get you a better assignment. This is called “mentoring” when it’s positive and “favoritism” when it’s not. The LASD is so large with so many smaller outposts that are distant from the main office that many can operate like small fiefdoms and rely on their own rules. (The RAND report discusses this in the context of “fast” versus “slow” stations – in other words, deputies are more likely to advance in their career if they are viewed as making more arrests in a region with a higher crime rate, begging the question of whose perception is the most important when it comes to public safety.) While there have been changes in the way in which deputies are promoted, the RAND report makes it clear that LASD officers don’t see any of these changes as meaningful — they are, instead, managerial, administrative hurdles that they can either outwit or outlast.
Finally, there’s the election problem when it comes to sheriffs. While you might think electing a top law enforcement officer would lead to more accountability, this doesn’t seem to be true. Most people running for Los Angeles sheriff grew up in the very culture they are trying to change. Take Cecil Rhambo, who is running to replace Villanueva. While Rhambo testified against his then-boss Lee Baca, he was still very close with Baca and Paul Tanaka, who was an admitted tattooed member of the Vikings gang, a white supremacist gang. Baca and Tanka were convicted and sent to prison for obstructing a DOJ investigation into Los Angeles jail violence. Rhambo avoided prosecution by testifying. So, can Rhambo’s claims of being a reformer now be believed?
Voters have limited options and circumscribed knowledge, particularly since internal cultures are something sheriffs like to conceal. How much can voters appreciate the problem of sheriff department culture when they are making decisions on many different public offices? We can hardly expect every voter to read a 200-plus page report on the sheriff or attend every day of a multi-month trial. Voters see the information put in front of them and make their decision on that limited basis. Besides, the LASD governs such a large territory that different communities will have vastly different experiences with deputies and command, an aspect reflected in the RAND report analysis of community perspectives.
On the other hand, if a smaller committee of people is choosing a police chief, you might expect them to devote more time and energy to the process. I am far from defending the method of choosing police chiefs; I just want to point out that it is a far more reasonable amount of work for a smaller committee that can call experts to testify than it is to expect civilian voters to understand how an 18,000-person sheriff’s office works.
Plus, those who might understand the inner workings or have a more vested interest – say the residents of Compton, which has a contractual agreement with the LASD for policing services – don’t have the democratic majority to influence the election of the Los Angeles County Sheriff. Consider this. Los Angeles County has 10 million people. Compton, 100,000. How is 1% of the county supposed to get their say in a sheriff election? Yet, it’s the residents of Compton, per the report, who are among those who feel that they are getting short-shifted and who experience policing from the LASD most frequently. One community member told the report:
I think it’s budgetary. I think since we’re a contract city they’re more worried about revenue. Because it’s not its own police force, there is no investment in the community. The Sheriff’s Department view contract cities as how much revenue can I generate from one car and how much does the city have to pay for it.
I’ve written about contract cities before and this very problem. Compton is now suing the LASD for insufficient service, and I am very curious to see what the details are as they emerge. (The topic of another post since there’s a lot to get into here.)
This week, Alene Tchekmedyian at the L.A. Times released a story investigating the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s “Civil Rights and Public Integrity Detail” unit whose stated purpose is to investigate alleged corruption cases; in reality, the unit (CRAP-ID?) appears to be investigating L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s political enemies.
As background, Villanueva approach L.A. District Attorney George Gascon some time ago to partner in such investigations. Gascon declined. Then, Villanueva began to campaign vigorously against Gascon and publicly supported recall efforts. I’m not saying one is connected to the other, but the timeline isn’t exactly innocent-sounding.
One of those political enemies is Max Huntsman, the L.A. County Inspector General, whose job is to investigate the LASD, for allegedly stealing confidential LASD files. The secret group also opened investigations into other critics of the LASD, including attorneys, as well as various nonprofits run be people who have positioned themselves against the sheriff. No charges have been filed — as a sign of how unusual this is, law enforcement generally does not announce opening investigations publicly and then never files charges. There’s a lot more, too, including questions about the integrity of those who lead the unit, which include a man who pretended to be a deputy to bring a man held in the Los Angeles jail an Egg McMuffin. COC member and law professor Sean Kennedy wrote a legal memo outlining the problem of these LASD unusually investigations. (Kennedy indicated during the COC meeting that the sheriff’s department threatened him with legal action for the memo.) The COC asked Villanueva to attend their Sept. 23 meeting. He refused, saying he was “busy.”
Now, to be fair, Villanueva has vigorously denied all of this, issuing a letter before Alene’s story was even published. (Was he copying Riverside Sheriff Chad Bianco?)
Ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona, created a “special unit” that worked for five years (!) to investigate the alleged “real” birth certificate for then-President Barak Obama, spurred on by Donald Trump. Another reflection, perhaps, on how the strange position of the sheriff allows this sort of behavior, the kind of personal vendetta-making that just, well, causes the average person to question the integrity and professionalism of a sheriff.