Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies are failing to follow public health orders that require them to wear masks on the job, giving the impression they are above the law, the Office of Inspector General warned Monday.
"The lack of face coverings puts not only the public at risk but the very law enforcement personnel who are responsible for protecting our community," Inspector General Max Huntsman stated in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.
"Failure of sheriff's department personnel to wear face coverings erodes public trust and increases the likelihood that members of the public will also fail to follow this life-saving practice."
Huntsman said he reported the issue Friday to the board and a watchdog agency that oversees the sheriff's department. Both statewide and county orders mandate the use of face coverings and the sheriff's department issued its own order mandating face coverings on April 15 -- well ahead of state and county officials.
That internal order applies to all employees in contact with other employees or the public "unless in a situation where a facial covering inhibits officer's safety."
Huntsman said deputies have refused to comply and there has been a lack of enforcement.
"Office of Inspector General personnel have responded to the scene of multiple deputy-involved shootings at which no or very few departmental personnel have been masked, despite interacting with members of the public or being within six feet of others,'' Huntsman wrote. "In some instances members of the department had masks but were not wearing them with the nose and mouth covered as required.''
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Numerous videos have also circulated online showing deputies without masks, including while responding during mass protests earlier this summer.
Huntsman sent a letter raising the issue to Sheriff Alex Villanueva on June 25 and allegedly received no response. A total of 816 employees of the department have tested positive for the virus, according to the department's website.
Huntsman's letter also called for subpoenaing records to get to the
bottom of accusations that the department may have booked a party at the
Sassafras Saloon in Hollywood early this month, despite state orders
prohibiting bars from opening.
Various social media posts claimed Los Angeles Police Department officers or sheriff's deputies were in attendance. The LAPD promised to review video to see if any of its officers were there.
The sheriff's department denied that the people shown in the video were their employees, calling the allegations "categorically false" and adding that the video appeared "to be a hoax perpetrated by social activists."
In a letter, Villanueva defended his position.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have enacted various Department directives regarding COVID-19," he wrote in a letter to the county Board of Supervisors. "Public safety and the safety of my personnel are of the utmost concern to me. COVID-19 Notice #51 mandates Department personnel to wear a face covering. Department executives re-brief this requirement on a regular basis in an effort to maintain compliance. With regard to the Sassafras Salon, the Department immediately initiated an inquiry into the allegation when the story was reported. The inquiry revealed the event was not hosted by the Department. This false information was put on social media by activist groups and has since been discredited. Information subsequently provided by these groups indicated the persons depicted on camera worked for a state agency and were not Department employees. Please refrain from associating this event with my Department as this speculation has been debunked."
Bars have been closed by order of Gov. Gavin Newsom since late June as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Huntsman said the company booking the venue said the party was booked for the benefit of the sheriff's department. However, the bar's owner/operator, 1933 Group, issued a statement to Eater Los Angeles saying it was not booked by the department directly.
"We were approached by an individual who requested to book a private event to honor a group of first responders. It was not a booking by the LA County Sheriff's Department directly, and we cannot confirm whether LASD staff were present," the company said in its statement.
"Any claims put forth on social media are not substantiated, as we have no evidence that LASD individuals were at the event. Our team places the upmost importance on COVID safety standards, and we did everything possible to provide our staff and guests with two outdoor spaces that completely complied with currently safety precautions and social distancing expectations."
That did not seem to satisfy Huntsman.
"Should this event have been organized or attended by sheriff's department personnel, the lack of compliance with state mandates is another example of department personnel disregarding a state directive and sending the public a message that sworn deputies are above the law," Huntsman said.
Huntsman's letter asked the board to issue a subpoena or ask the Civilian Oversight Commission to issue a subpoena for information about who booked and attended the party.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include Sheriff Villanueva's response.