California opens civil rights probe into Los Angeles Sheriff's Department

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California’s top prosecutor opened an investigation on Friday into the scandal-plagued Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, probing accusations the agency had engaged in a long pattern of excessive force, illegal shootings and abuse of jail inmates.

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The civil rights probe follows years of allegations that the nation’s largest local law enforcement agency was rife with abuse throughout its ranks that top supervisors tolerated and in some cases covered up.

“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” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has at times sparred with county leaders over the management and direction of the department, said in a written statement that he looked forward to the probe.

“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,” Villanueva said.

“During my administration we have routinely asked the state office of the attorney general to monitor our investigations and we will provide immediate access to all information in our possession,” he said. We are eager to get this process started, in the interest of transparency and accountability.”President Joe Biden has nominated Becerra, a Democrat, to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The U.S. Senate is expected to take up his confirmation hearings in the coming days.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, also a Democrat, would be tasked with appointing Becerra’s successor, who would presumably take over the investigation.

In September, Dijon Kizzee, a black man who was stopped on his bicycle for a suspected vehicle code violation, was shot to death by two Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies after he allegedly punched one officer and dropped a pistol on the ground.

The sheriff’s department has announced an internal investigation into that incident.

Kizzee’s death marked the latest in a string of shootings and alleged abuses involving deputies. Civil rights activists have called for reforms throughout the department.

In 2013 the Federal Bureau of Investigation charged 18 Los Angeles County Sheriffs deputies, including two high-ranking supervisors, with attempting to thwart a federal probe into abuse in the nation’s largest jail system.

Then-Sheriff Lee Baca was among those convicted in the case and sentenced to prison.

Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by David Gregorio