When Sheriff Robert Luna was sworn into office in December, he inherited an embattled department prone to scandal and turmoil.
There were lawsuits, investigations, consent decrees and deputy “gangs” to contend with — not to mention repairing the discord sewn during the tenure of his truculent predecessor.
“There are, unfortunately, fractured relationships that need to be fixed,” Luna told The Times last year. “Sometimes,” he added, “the way you approach governing makes a huge difference.”
True as that may be, the steady stream of problems he’s facing has hardly slowed down: Last month, the ACLU asked a federal judge to hold the county and the sheriff in contempt for failing to fix deteriorating conditions at the jails. Two days later, the Civilian Oversight Commission released a scathing report detailing the history of gangs within the department’s ranks. One week after that, questions surfaced about whether Luna’s second-in-command — Undersheriff April Tardy — has a tattoo signifying allegiance to a deputy “gang.”
This all to say: There’s nothing easy about being the sheriff of Los Angeles County. Last week, on his 99th day in office, Luna sat down with The Times to talk about his first few months in office, and how he plans to move forward. Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Los Angeles Times: When you came into office a few months ago, you took over a department that had come under a lot of criticism. Did you come across any wrongdoing going on when you came in, anything that offended you as a public servant?
Sheriff Robert Luna: As the new guy, I had my priorities of what I wanted to at least start my term with. But when I walked in here, that changed a little bit because I realized that organizational stability was just as important as anything else that I was working on. Part of the stabilization strategy was to be different than my predecessor. That’s not to say he was wrong or right. But I told everybody, “Hey, we’re looking forward, we’re not looking backwards.” So that immediately set a different tone.
At the same time, we had different people coming to us and saying, “Hey, we think this was going on, we think that was going on.” And if we find there’s anything that even smells like it’s criminal, all bets are off, that’s going right to the appropriate authorities. I’m going to be recognized as a sheriff who follows the law.
LAT: About two weeks ago, the Civilian Oversight Commission released a report on deputy “gangs” and how to eradicate them. Are there particular things in that report that you see as a top priority?
RL: One that comes to mind — and I don’t know if I can say this is my top priority, but it’s up there — is the policy relating to tattoos and emblems. I think that is something that we can look at and work with our labor partners and try and figure out: Where have we been, where are we at today and where should we go now?
LAT: But you don’t know what that policy will look like?
RL: Not yet. Because if I did, I’d be getting ahead of myself. I’m going to get people’s input before we put this in black-and-white writing. It’s going to be several, several weeks out. If we want it to be long term, we have to do it right.
LAT: One of the things in the news recently was the undersheriff’s tattoo. Have you asked your other top command staff whether they have tattoos?
RL: There were questions posed. We were very careful about the way we asked them. And there’s legal aspects to it in regards to having tattoos. Generally — and you guys may get a little bit of a laugh out of this — the question goes something like this: If we were to promote you, and the L.A. Times finds out that we promoted you, what story are they going to talk about? What’s going to come out about you?
Now, have I asked everybody if they have a tattoo? I have not. Would I like to know? Yes. And I think as the processes go on, we’ll figure out how to do that together as we move forward.
LAT: The Civilian Oversight Commission report also suggested that gang symbols should be removed from stations and jails. Are you aware of any there now, and have you talked about plans to evaluate if they exist or remove them?
RL: The new policy is going to deal with tattoos and symbols. It’s all together. As we’re moving forward, they’re together. Eventually, through the meet and confer process and legal research, we may have to separate them. But as much as we talk about tattoos, I don’t think you could have one conversation without having the other.
LAT: Los Angeles Police Department recently banned public displays of the Thin Blue Line flag. Is that something you’ve discussed as part of that policy, as well?
RL: I think when you’re talking about emblems, it gets tricky when you allow some and not others. I know it’s a controversial issue within law enforcement. I’m just gonna tell you this: You will not see a flag in here with a blue stripe, not in my office.
LAT: In the past, you’ve spoken publicly about how bad the conditions are in the Inmate Reception Center. Do you have any plans that would help solve that?
RL: I’m looking at every option. As you know, the ACLU is taking the court action, and I don’t blame them for doing it. There are some unacceptable conditions there. We want to do everything we can to improve them. At the end of the day, my vision — our vision — is that we need upgraded facilities. The facilities we have are not conducive to our client and inmate population in 2023.
LAT: One of the recommendations in the Civilian Oversight Commission report was assigning new deputies to patrol instead of starting them in the jails. Is that something that you’re exploring?
RL: I’m taking every recommendation they gave us very seriously. But if it’s very different, or unique from anything we’ve done before, I have to look at the history [and ask] why is it this way? Sometimes you get the answer, “Well, we’ve always done it this way.” That’s not a good answer.
Coming in here as the outsider, people said, “How are you going to change that culture?” Well, for things that need to be changed, you want to change it for the right reason. But you also want long-term change, and how do you make long-term change? You make long-term change by figuring out what happened, how we got there, and then getting the people who work there involved. And then we make the change together. And what I’m finding is there’s a lot of people here — the majority of people — who are great people who want to see changes.
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