Sheriff Alex Villanueva — the lightning-rod Los Angeles County lawman — has “created an atmosphere” within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in which “the violation of civil rights is not only approved by the department, but encouraged.” That’s the stunning allegation at the heart of a new lawsuit against the LASD filed by two Black residents of Inglewood who claim they were needlessly brutalized by department deputies — one by being tased and allegedly shot with rubber bullets, the other kneed in the neck until he could not breathe.
The civil suit (embedded below) was filed earlier this month in federal district court and seeks “at least” $5 million in damages, plus “punitive and exemplary damages” that would “deter others from engaging in similar misconduct.” Deputy Sheriff John Satterfield, a spokesman for the sheriff, tells Rolling Stone that the lawsuit is baseless: “These unproven allegations are false and due process will reveal such.”
The incident in question occurred on the morning of December 1, 2020 in Inglewood — a city within Los Angeles county, southwest of downtown L.A., near the airport.
That morning, Inglewood resident Larry Jefferson had been experiencing “a mental health episode,” according to his lawsuit against the sheriff’s department. Jefferson’s family had called 911 out of concern for his well being, but nobody came to help, the suit says.
Later that morning, at about 9 a.m., there was a car crash outside of the home of Christopher Chambers, Jefferson’s brother-in-law and the other plaintiff in the lawsuit. In the accident’s aftermath, Jefferson stepped out into the street and began directing traffic around the crash. When Los Angeles sheriff deputies rolled up to attend to the accident, Jefferson’s behavior was erratic. He did not follow directions to move out of the street, the suit contends, and instead told officers he was “not afraid of them.”
Jefferson was not armed, and the lawsuit insists he made no threatening gestures toward the deputies. Regardless, the lawmen swarmed out of their vehicle and not only tased Jefferson, the lawsuit claims, but shot him with rubber bullets. The less-lethal strike, as seen in cell phone video posted to TMZ the day after the incident, sent Jefferson sprawling onto the pavement. (Jefferson was left with severe road rash on his hand and shoulder. The lawsuit contends that “Mr. Jefferson suffered great physical and emotional pain and continues to suffer fear, anxiety, [and] insomnia.”)
Seeing his brother-in-law fall, Chambers ran to the street in his pajamas to tell the deputies that Jefferson was “not in his right mind,” according to the suit. In response, as can be seen in the video, three deputies tackled Chambers, and forced him to the ground. One deputy “had their knee on his neck and Mr. Chambers was not able to breathe,” the suit says. In desperation, Chambers told a lie, asking: “Is this how you treat the son of a police officer?” The lawsuit contends “Mr. Chambers believes that if he did not say he was a police officer’s son, he would have sustained serious injury or may have even died.” The officers immediately pulled Chambers off the ground, the suit says, but still arrested him. Chambers was jailed for the night on charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer; the charges were later dropped.
The lawsuit is filed against ten unnamed sheriffs deputies alleged to have “used excessive force on Mr. Chambers and Mr. Jefferson” — conduct the suit claims was “willful, wanton, malicious, and oppressive.” But the suit also names, and lays the blame for the deputy malfeasance at the feet of, Villanueva. The litigation claims the sheriff “created” and worked to “expand” a “violent environment within the LASD,” including by “advocating for, and rehiring, former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies who have been found to use unreasonable force and fail to use de-escalation.”
In fact, Villanueva has controversially sought to reinstate deputies previously fired by the department for misconduct, including for unjustified violence. A judge last year overturned one of Villanueva’s re-hirings as “unlawful” — involving a deputy who had been fired amid allegations of domestic violence and stalking of a fellow deputy.
The plaintiff’s attorney in the new civil suit, Faisal Gill, alleges that Villanuevea is “single handedly” responsible for LASD’s culture of civil rights abuses, underscoring how Villanueva has normalized the use of “less-lethal” weapons like rubber bullets. “He’s been quoted as saying that these weapons are ‘designed to get someone’s attention without injuring them,’” Gill says, even though the sheriff is “aware of the high risk of injury these weapons pose.” The suit further alleges that Villanueva, “through his hiring, training, and supervision of the deputies, has caused an environment which promotes the use of unreasonable and excessive force.”
These new claims against the sheriff add yet another gale to a maelstrom of scandal that has engulfed LASD in the past year. In December 2020, a report by the L.A. County’s inspector general accused Villanueva’s department of “unlawful conduct” in bucking civilian oversight, adding that “the Sheriff’s position, that his power… cannot be limited by charter, statute or ordinance, has resulted in a constitutional crisis.”
This summer, a RAND Corporation report, commissioned by the county, found the sheriff’s department continues to be rife with deputy gangs — which have been accused of brutalizing both the public and non-gang colleagues within LASD — despite Villanueva’s pledges to counter such lawlessness in the ranks.
The sheriff’s department has also allegedly opened politically motivated investigations into Villanueva’s critics in county government — conducted by a “Public Corruption Unit” that the Los Angeles Times reported is referred to within LASD as the sheriff’s “secret police.” County D.A. George Gascón told the paper bluntly he refused to cooperate with Villanueva’s investigations because, “He’s only targeting political enemies.” Villanueva has responded that “the narrative that I created this team to attack my political opponents and their appointees… is false.”
The sheriff, meanwhile, is continuing to flout the county’s board of supervisors. Most prominently, he refusing to enforce LA county’s mandate that public employees be vaccinated. Villanueva says enforcing the order would deplete the ranks of his deputies, only about half of whom have gotten a jab. He defended his actions in a recent Washington Post op-ed, replete with Trumpian swipes at the city’s establishment: “Deputies tell me that they would rather quit or retire than be publicly shamed by a liberal Board of Supervisors, along with its media cheerleaders, telling them what to put in their bodies.” Villanueva concluded with a right-wing culture warrior’s battlecry: “One aspect of progressive ‘wokeness’ is the urge to have government dictate every aspect of people’s personal lives,” he wrote. “That’s what is going on here.”
Villanueva was elected to head the nation’s largest sheriff’s department in 2018 with the backing of the county’s Democratic Party in 2018; in June of this year that same party called on him to resign for “perpetuating a culture of police brutality” and failing to address “deputy gangs.” As he prepares for his reelection campaign in 2022, Villanueva is shifting unabashedly to the right. Even so, his public relations team within LASD continues to tout Villanueva as a progressive stalwart: “Sheriff Alex Villanueva remains the most transparent and accountable sheriff,” Deputy Sheriff Satterfield tells Rolling Stone, “in the history of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.”