When Sheriff Robert Luna assumed office in late 2022, he was riding the wave of reform. Luna won by a landslide against unpopular incumbent Alex Villanueva, whom he criticized for his rhetoric and neglect of pressing issues within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). Luna ran a campaign on “Integrity, accountability, and collaboration.” At his swearing-in ceremony, Luna promised no “Sacred cows” – no practice too precious to question, no deputy too revered to face consequences for misconduct. 

Luna aimed to eliminate deputy gangs from the LASD and improve jail conditions, two popular issues that have resulted in countless lawsuits, state and federal investigations, and community campaigns against the LASD. 

But critics of the LASD under Luna’s leadership say his reforms have been insufficient. 

LASD Gang Investigations

LASD deputy gangs have existed for 50 years. Investigative reporters, criminal justice lawyers, and the department’s Civilian Oversight Commission have worked to expose their operations and advocate for their eradication from seats of power. Local leaders, including Luna, have called the gangs cancerous. In a 15-part investigation, Cerise Castle reported that deputy gangs have murdered at least 40 people and that “Litigation related to these cases has cost the County just over $100 million over the past 30 years.”

In 2022, California enacted AB 958, requiring law enforcement agencies “To maintain a policy that prohibits participation in a law enforcement gang and to cooperate in any investigation into these gangs.” As one of his first acts in office, Sheriff Luna created the Office of Constitutional Policing (OCP) and tasked them, in part, with investigating and weeding out deputy gangs.

The Office of Inspector General, L.A. County (OIG)  oversees “Constitutional policing and the fair and impartial administration of justice,” monitoring the LASD, and has issued reports on the department in service of the Board of Supervisors (BoS) and the LASD Civilian Oversight Commission (COC). In recent months, the OIG has documented areas of Luna’s administration that fall short of their duties and aspirations. In a report on deputy gangs from February, the OIG quoted a previous report: “The Department for decades under successive sheriffs has failed to initiate systemic action to identify the nature of those secret societies, their membership or their involvement in significant uses of force.” The report continued, “More than two years later, the statement remains true.” Despite the “New administration, the Sheriff’s Department has, to date, never undertaken an investigation aimed at identifying every member of any subgroup or determining whether any of those groups engage in a pattern of conduct that violates the law or Department policy.”

In a highlight reel of Luna’s first year in office, the LASD celebrated the creation of the OCP. They quoted Robert Bonner, commissioner of the COC, who said, “We have every reason to believe that this is going to be a truly effective office.” 

The OIG acknowledged that Sheriff Luna and the OCP have made progress towards complying with state law, but have failed to thoroughly investigate deputy gangs. The OIG noted that only two deputies had been fired related to alleged gang affiliation under Luna. Both deputies were already under investigation by the department, and the LASD’s method of investigation prevented other gang members from being identified. The OIG claimed that internal investigative units “Maintain practices which amount to a Code of Silence in their investigations.”  Sheriff Luna, who once considered deputy gangs a campaign-worthy issue, now heads a department that argues “It impacts only a small percentage of the Department.” 

Sheriff Luna’s response to the OIG reports called them “Speculative, unfair, and irresponsible.” Luna continued, “While the Department faces many challenges in its reform efforts, I am also extremely optimistic that we can achieve significant reform.”

Deputy gang members reportedly continue to occupy leadership positions at stations and within the department’s headquarters.

The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) has blocked efforts by the OIG to independently investigate deputy gangs. The OIG attempted to interview 35 deputies who were allegedly members of the Banditos and the Executioners, two notorious groups within the LASD. ALADS brought the matter to the L.A. Superior Court, which halted the interviews on the grounds that “State law requires the County to bargain the effects of the law with deputies’ labor unions before enforcing the state law.”

Sheriff’s associations have also allegedly prevented the implementation of the COC’s recommendations. In March 2023, Sheriff Luna met with police associations “To ensure that problems identified by the COC and other reports are addressed.” More than a year later, Undersheriff April Tardy informed the COC that their recommendations were still being agreed upon in meetings with deputy unions, which violates the state’s penal code. The LASD has also failed to adhere to orders from County Supervisors and other oversight bodies.

ALADS is the largest Sheriff’s association. While they didn’t officially endorse either candidate in the last election, former ALADS president Ronald Hernandez said in a recent interview that the department was better off under Villanueva. Hernandez criticized Luna’s policy on gang tattoos, which prohibits deputies with tattoos denoting affiliations with an alleged deputy gang from occupying higher ranks. One LASD Lieutenant, who recently covered up his Banditos tattoo, was praised by Luna for “Good leadership.” Hernandez claimed that tattoo cover-ups were only done by people with career advancement in mind. 

Squalid Conditions and Misconduct Persist in Jails 

Some advocates allege that the department’s new veneer of reform hides the harm still being done in L.A. County jails. The Vera Institute reported 12 deaths inside L.A. County jails so far in 2024 and 45 in 2023. Many of the people who died in L.A. jails had not yet been convicted of a crime. 

Michelle Parris, program director of Vera California, credited the deaths to a “Culture of impunity and neglect within the LA County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails.” 

Sheriff Robert Luna told the L.A. Times that the people dying in his jails were already in poor health. He said many people in L.A. jails receive the “Best healthcare of their lives.” But the Times investigation revealed that the people in L.A. jails suffered under nearly institutionalized neglect by deputies and medical staff.  

L.A. County jails have been the subject of numerous investigations and lawsuits. The “Squalid, inhumane” conditions in the jails and reports of excessive violence from LASD staff within them have not improved, according to advocacy groups and community members within and without the facilities. Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) has been deemed “Uninhabitable” by committee members within the BoS. 

County officials have been trying to close MCJ for a decade. In 2020, the BoS ordered the LASD and the Office of Diversion and Reentry to form a working group and present a detailed plan to shut down the Men’s Central Jail. In 2021, the working group delivered a plan that would allow the jail to be shuttered within two years. The deadline came and went. This year, the BoS solicited a plan from a newly created department that would enable the jail’s closure in five years. More than 130 people have died in MCJ since 2019. 

With the aid of a BoS sub-group, Luna has reduced the population of MCJ, an important step in the jail’s eventual closure. While Luna is not primarily responsible for the delay in MCJ’s closure, reports from the OIG document widespread health hazards and misconduct within the jails that he oversees. 

Last October, a woman gave birth at the Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF). Despite being held at the detention center for four months, staff failed to notice she was pregnant. Surveillance footage viewed by the OIG showed the pregnant woman trying to get the attention of LASD staff while she was in labor. She delivered her baby in her cell, alone. When a staff member eventually discovered the woman and her newborn, they called three deputies in. The deputies brought the woman out of her cell – having just given birth without medical help, she was covered in blood. Then the deputies handcuffed her. 

California law prohibits the handcuffing of people who are pregnant, in labor or have recently given birth unless they present a significant bodily threat to themself or others. In all cases, California law prohibits hand-cuffing people in this protected class behind their backs, which the deputies initially did. The OIG’s report acknowledges that the LASD has since changed some of its policies to adequately and lawfully respond when this circumstance arises again. 

Last summer, Sheriff Luna and the BoS reached a settlement with the ACLU regarding conditions at the county’s booking facility, known as the Inmate Reception Center (IRC). Unhygienic conditions at the booking facility were magnified by severe overcrowding in county jails. Instead of being a temporary stop for arrested people, the IRC became a place where one could be trapped for days. The settlement promised an end to the worst of the facility’s practices. 

Sheriff Luna’s relationship with the BoS is markedly less hostile than his predecessor’s. Many of the Supervisors endorsed his campaign. Last year, the Board approved a budget increase for the LASD that was criticized by community groups like Check the Sheriff. Luna claims that staffing issues – the department has more than 2,000 vacant positions – can be mitigated with robust funding. In a proposed budget to the Board for the upcoming year, Luna requested more funding for training. He noted the number of department vacancies in 2024 is higher than 2023.

In his anniversary reel, Sheriff Luna also touted meetings with community members as evidence of his department’s work to repair relationships. Groups representing family members of people who have been killed by deputies or have died in LASD jails have alleged that they are targets of constant harassment from department employees. 

While some critiques focus on Luna, others frame reported failures as proof of the structural and functional injustices that persist at the department. “The Sheriff’s Department has a famously decentralized system of command and control,” said the OIG. “It is not surprising that even under a new administration…these problems remain.”

Regardless of his high ideals, critics say, Luna is still the head of an unjust body.

The LASD did not respond to a request for comment by our print deadline, nor did Westside Supervisors Lindsey Horvath and Holly Mitchell.

Photo by Eric Polk, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wiki Commons.

west los angeles news
west los angeles news
Stay informed. Sign up for The Westside Voice Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to share your email address with Westside Voice. We do not sell or share your information with anyone.