LA County considers hiring non-sworn force to patrol parks, as sheriff closes park bureau

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to reconsider how to ensure safety in county parks following Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s announcement that he will close the department’s Parks Bureau, provoking the sheriff to accuse the board of “defunding” the LASD.

However, according to county lawyers, Villanueva may have “defunded” his own department, because closing the bureau will free up the roughly $24 million allocated to that group that could now be used to hire a third-party contractor.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger—who said the sheriff left her with “no choice” but to vote for a review of park services—suggested that Villanueva consult with his captains, who are trained to understand how the county budget works.  Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn recommended considering a safety strategy “better aligned with the board’s vision for public safety and justice,” which could include a community policing model working alongside sheriff’s deputies and/or hiring unarmed staff trained in crisis response and violence prevention strategies to patrol parks.

Ridley-Thomas would also like to see more money for youth programs.

“Youth programming has not been the priority for this sheriff that it should be,” he said.

Barger said she hoped that the review by the county CEO and parks, mental health and public health departments would result in a recommendation to continue working in partnership with LASD.

“I do not believe it is wise to make long-term changes based on current personalities,” Barger said. “I believe the Parks Bureau is doing an incredible job and is quite frankly being used as a pawn by this sheriff.”

Barger noted that the county’s Office of Public Safety provided security at parks and hospitals until 2009, when a decision was made to merge the public safety office with LASD to professionalize the force.

Hahn remarked that county parks were not always as safe as they are now.

During comments made to the board in advance of the vote, Villanueva mocked the idea of hiring unarmed personnel, saying “good luck with that with an armed gang member who wants to shoot people in the park.”

The sheriff said he was forced into the decision to close the Parks Bureau, which he apparently did without any discussion with the Department of Parks and Recreation.

“The county budget overall is increasing, while the sheriff’s budget is decreasing. There is no fat left to trim anywhere,” Villanueva said. “Everything we do we’re going to be consolidating, we’re going to be shifting funds where we can to make sure we’re affording essential services.”

Acting County CEO Fesia Davenport said the sheriff planned to redeploy more than 100 deputies as well as non-sworn personnel working in the Parks Bureau to custody operations, but asserted that he has no legal authority to do so.

The LASD did not immediately respond to a request for an explanation of the need for more custody deputies at a time when the jail population has been significantly decreased to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

However, Villanueva said during his comments to the board that the CEO’s freeze on custody positions would otherwise force him to close the South Facility at Pitchess Detention Center and transfer inmates.

The sheriff also sent a letter to the board just prior to the meeting, according to Supervisor Hilda Solis. County Counsel Mary Wickham said the sheriff claimed not to be able to comply with various consent decrees related to jail violence and other issues without more custody staff.

“That’s just not accurate. Our most recent reports from the various court monitors has overall suggested that we’re in compliance,” Wickham said. “The sheriff seems to be making an issue out of something conveniently that the facts just don’t support.”

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