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After a year in office, L.A. County sheriff talks deputy gangs, jail deaths, overdoses

Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

By the time Sheriff Robert Luna ousted his predecessor and became L.A. County's top cop in late 2022, the nation's largest sheriff's department was awash in controversy.

The half-century-old problem of deputy gangs had brought the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department under increasing national scrutiny. Jail conditions were becoming increasingly dire, and the decades-old lawsuits about them seemed no closer to resolution. On top of that, the department was short on staff, mired in scandal and often at odds with county leaders.

A year later, many of those problems remain unresolved — and critics say the new sheriff has little to show for his time in office. The department has yet to ban deputy gang tattoos, and the courts have stymied efforts to identify the gangs' alleged members. County data show roughly 20% of sworn positions are effectively vacant, jail death rates are soaring and, in June, the county only narrowly avoided a contempt hearing over conditions inside its lockups.

Still, the signs of change are unmistakable. After taking office, Luna quickly opened up more access to oversight officials. He created the Office of Constitutional Policing to help the county comply with four federal consent decrees, eradicate gangs and overhaul policies that could help reform the department.

So far this year, deputy-involved shootings are down, and the jail population is falling. Deputies are using force against inmates less frequently, and the department created a timer system to make sure jailers stopped chaining mentally ill people to benches for days. And this week, in an interview at the Hall of Justice, Luna told The Times he's formulating a plan to close the county's oldest lockup.

"Men's Central Jail needs to be replaced," he said. "We need something that resembles a care campus that can deal with what custody should look like toward the future."

 

Exactly how that would work is still fuzzy, and the sheriff would only promise more details in the future, hinting at something perhaps loosely inspired by the gentler prison systems of European countries. Making that a reality will be an uphill battle — just like some of the other lofty goals Luna has in mind.

"For a sheriff's department or a police department to be successful, we need to be properly led and properly partnered, staffed, equipped and trained," he said. "I was handed a department that has been deficient. ... And we have a lot of work to do. A lot of work."

Over a little more than an hour, Luna explained what some pieces of that work could entail. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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