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Inspector General: L.A. County Sherriff’s Officers Not Wearing Face Masks

On Thursday, June 25, 2020, Sheriff Alex Villanueva swore in Class #449 at the STARS Center Gymnasium. On June 18, 2020, the California Department of Public Health mandated that all people in the state “must wear face coverings when they are in high-risk situations.” The Sheriff’s Department issued its first order mandating face coverings on April 15, 2020. – Courtesy photo / Facebook, @LosAngelesCountySheriffsDepartment

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies are not wearing face masks as required by state and county mandates, giving the impression they are above the law, warns an Aug. 21 letter from Inspector General Max Huntsman addressed to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and Brian K. Williams, executive director of the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission.

Guidelines mandate that, absent extenuating circumstances, sheriff’s deputies and personnel should  wear face masks while on duty when dealing with member of the public in person, working a station open to the public, or within 6 feet of someone who is not from the same household.

The inspector general writes, “In numerous instances, Sheriff’s Department personnel have not complied with the state mandate requiring face coverings. … In some instances, member of the Department had masks but were not wearing them with the nose and mouth covered as required.”

Several videos have gone viral on social media showing deputies without masks, including during numerous protests in the last few months.

“In addition to the lack of masks at scenes at which Office of Inspector General staff were present, numerous videos of deputies in the field, including during the period of civil unrest in Los Angeles, reveal a general lack of compliance by sworn personnel with state orders on face coverings,” writes Huntsman.

The failure to comply is not due to a failure by the department to issue clearly written directions but rather “a refusal to comply with lawful order and a lack of enforcement by supervisors,” says the inspector general.

Huntsman says he raised the issued in a June 25, 2020 letter to the sheriff but received no response.

The inspector general warns that a lack of face masks puts not only the public at risk but also law enforcement personnel and sets a bad example. The department reports a total 826 COVID-19 cases within its ranks, 509 among sworn deputies. The letter continues, “As with all failures to obey the law by law enforcement, 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 also recommends that the Board of Supervisors issue a subpoena to uncover whether Sheriff’s Department personnel booked and attended a party at Sassafras Saloon in Hollywood. The company which provided the venue said that the party was booked for the benefit of the department, according to Huntsman. If the event was organized and attended by department personnel, it was done in disregard to state public health guidelines and sends the “public a message that sworn deputies are above the law,” writes Huntsman.

The sheriff’s department has denied allegations that its personnel attended the event, calling them “categorically false” and positing that videos on social media are “a hoax perpetrated by social activists.”

Huntsman, however, seems to have doubts. The letter concludes: “As you know, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department no longer complies with state and local laws requiring transparency with the Office of Inspector General during active investigations. However, public statements from the Sheriff’s Department give reason to doubt that it is conducting a thorough investigations of the Sassafras Saloon event. The event company has declined to cooperate in the Office of Inspector General’s investigation. I recommend that the Board issue a subpoena to the event company for the records identifying attendees and organizers or refer the matter to the Civilian Oversight Commission for the consideration of issuing a subpoena.”

Sheriff Alex Villanueva responded to Huntsman on Monday with his own letter. “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,” writes Villanueva. However, this does not address Huntsman’s allegations as he conceded in his letter that failure to comply in the department is not due to a failure of directions but rather a lack of enforcement.

Villanueva also challenged Huntsman’s subpoena recommendation. “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.” The sheriff went on to once again deny that people from his department attended the party. “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.”

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