The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to ask the coroner to conduct an inquest into the June 18 death of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, who was shot by a deputy in the Gardena area, and indicated its plan to file suit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The board voted in favor of a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas that alleged the Sheriff's Department had violated state law by failing to allow oversight of law enforcement investigations. It directed the county's lead lawyer to report back on the feasibility of a lawsuit within 10 days.
Ridley-Thomas also recommended the inquest and using the coroner's subpoena power to create a record of investigative steps taken by the Sheriff's Department related to the cause and circumstances of death.
"For far too long we have accepted the status quo -- we haven't sufficiently challenged law enforcement's incessant demands that investigations remain shrouded in secrecy," Ridley-Thomas said. "This board must not sit by and allow the county's law enforcement department to entrench itself in traditional patterns of behavior that profoundly harm not only vulnerable communities but the entire justice system."
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Ridley-Thomas said the move would also bolster the investigation into the Monday afternoon shooting of Dijon Kizzee, who was killed by sheriff's deputies who stopped the 29-year-old Black man for "code violations" while riding his bike. Deputies say Kizzee was armed with a handgun and punched a deputy in the face, while relatives and activists said he dropped his gun and was shot more than 20 times in the back.
In the June shooting, Guardado's family said he was armed because he was working as a security guard for an auto body shop. Deputies said he was not wearing a guard's uniform when they responded to a report of a non-fatal shooting in the area and wasn't licensed as a guard or old enough to hold that job under state law.
Inspector General Max Huntsman told the board that his office would have been better able to gauge allegations against deputies in the Guardado case if his staff still had access to LASD computers, but the department locked them out some time ago.
"We have made requests for information that have been denied," Huntsman said.
The inspector general mentioned an accusation that the deputy who witnessed the shooting was involved in a deputy gang. Huntsman also revealed that the deputy who shot Guardado "didn't give a statement for weeks," saying that delay could raise concerns in the community about some kind of deal between the department and the deputy's lawyer.
"The county's Sheriff's Department's refusal to comply with state law and permit monitoring of their investigations of themselves deeply undermines law enforcement credibility," Huntsman said.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she was sorry to be forced to move against the department.
"I am saddened that this motion had to be brought before us today. The Guardado family deserves answers and the community as a whole is deserving of transparency," Barger said. "The apparent resistance to oversight is eroding years of work by this board and our law enforcement partners, and it is a disservice to the men and women of the Sheriff's Department that is undermining the good work that many of them are doing. It is an odd position to have to remind this sheriff that even as the chief law enforcement of LA County, he is not above the law."
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has consistently pushed back against the board's allegations that he does not favor transparency, pointing to his direct communication with the public through postings of department policy and other information on his website and community town hall meetings. In addition to legal wrangling with the board, the department has sued Huntsman, accusing his office of conspiracy, unauthorized computer access and theft of confidential files.
Before the board vote, the sheriff took aim at Ridley-Thomas' motion.
"The motion proposed by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is poorly written, riddled with inaccuracies and contradictory to the law as well as best practices employed in death investigations," Villanueva said.
The sheriff said the motion portrayed the deputy involved in a negative light that could be deemed slanderous and open the county up to civil liability. He challenged the board's authority to request an inquest. He said releasing information earlier could compromise an investigation.
"Transparency cannot come at the expense of integrity in any criminal investigation," the sheriff said.
Villanueva said his department's criminal investigation bureau has handled 69 cases since he took over as sheriff, leading to 14 filings with the District Attorney's Office to date.
"We do hold our employees accountable, so any suggestion or inference that we cannot hold ourselves accountable to the rule of law is factually false," Villanueva said.
UCLA Black Policy Project Executive Director Isaac Bryant hailed the board's move.
"The Sheriff's Office under this administration has illegally avoided all attempts to move transparently in the investigation of Andres Guardado. Now at a time when the entire nation is calling for us to re-imagine public safety and accountability, and with the shooting of Dijon Kizzee just last night, I applaud the leadership of Supervisor Ridley-Thomas to hold this department accountable and further calls for justice,'' Bryant said in a statement.