WHITTIER (CNS) – In a fight to preserve funding for his department during a time of deep across-the-board budget cuts in Los Angeles County, Sheriff Alex Villanueva today decided to let crime victims speak for him.
In a series of emotional pleas, families devastated by violent crimes spoke out against eliminating various detective units and a plan to close Men’s Central Jail. What no speakers at the afternoon news conference mentioned is that the county has never proposed eliminating any of those bureaus, though the board is considering shuttering the deteriorating downtown jail.
Patricia Wenskunas, an assault victim who is the founder and CEO of the Crime Survivors Resource Center, said she wanted to give fellow victims a voice.
“Victims’ voices are not heard. Who’s speaking about the victims?” Wenskunas asked. “I understand COVID-19 is devastating… but that is no excuse to not provide the funding and the money to keep the Special Victims Bureau in place, to be able to oppose the closing of Men’s Central Jail. We cannot let these offenders not serve their time and be released back into their communities.”
Villanueva has warned that budget cuts could result in the elimination of important investigative groups like the Special Victims Bureau, Major Crimes Bureau and the Gang Unit, leading victims to make a case for the critical role these units serve.
However, the budget approved by the Board of Supervisors last week — which calls for an 8% decrease in funding — does not anticipate shutting down any of the bureaus named by the sheriff. Many of the cuts department-wide are to budgeted positions that have not yet been filled.
Every one of the 457 layoffs that may be required in October — if the county cannot find additional funding — is set to take place in custody operations, not the detective units highlighted during the news conference. The board has argued that layoffs in the jails make the most sense, because the inmate population has already been reduced by nearly 30% through efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The sheriff himself has pointed to those reduced numbers as evidence of his effective management of the coronavirus.
At Monday’s news conference, however, he focused on an alleged carjacker on probation who is accused of killing a 13-year-old girl in Pico Rivera on Sunday afternoon. Jose Elias Aguilar, 26, allegedly jumped behind the wheel of a van in which four children were waiting while their parents picked up food to go from a tortilleria on Whittier Boulevard.
Aguilar allegedly shouted at the kids to get out, but took off before they could do so. Two children jumped out of the moving van, Villanueva said, but two remained inside.
“As the suspect drove erratically, weaving in and out of the traffic, the two children, ages 13 and 18, were ejected from the van into the street. Each child sustained massive trauma,” the sheriff said.
Isabella Cortes, 13, died at the scene and her brother was hospitalized in critical condition, Villanueva said.
“The suspect had been arrested on May 15, 2020, for a felony weapons violation. He was released on citation due to the emergency bail schedule, the zero bail schedule,” the sheriff said. “I hear a lot (on) the news about ‘say his name, say her name.’ Well, I will say her name again. Isabella Cortes. Let’s not forget her.”
The sheriff did not mention the budget at all in his remarks, but others drew the connection for him. Ron Hernandez, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said, “I’ve been on this department 35 years, and I believe this department has been underfunded for the majority of my career.”
Hernandez and Wenskunas both stressed that they thought politics should not be part of the budget process, but both seemed to take the sheriff’s assertions about the effects of cuts at face value, apparently without reviewing the county’s budget documents.
When it comes to closing the jail, there is more than a straw man to argue about.
Supervisor Hilda Solis has called for a plan to close Men’s Central Jail within a year, a proposal which will be heard by the entire board Tuesday. The county has long sought a solution to replace the facility — which is antiquated enough to pose multiple hazards. At one point, the board was ready to approve a large-scale mental health jail.
Since then, the supervisors seem to have been won over by arguments from civil rights organizers who propose investing in smaller, community-based mental health and substance abuse centers while expanding jail diversion programs to permanently reduce the jail population.
Hernandez argued that there will always be a need for jail beds, noting that roughly 5,000 inmates remain in the downtown lockup.
“What happens when our detectives do their jobs, and people have to go to jail? Where do those bodies go?” Hernandez asked. “People that are talking about jails need to be closed should also be talking about that when you close jails, where do you put those bodies? Do you start doubling up in the other jails? Do you start putting floor sleepers and things of that nature?”
It should be a question of replacing, not closing jails, the union leader said.
Solis’ motion calls on the Sheriff’s Department to work with the Department of Health Services and the Office of Diversion and Reentry to map out what would be required to close the downtown jail and potentially move inmates to other jails across the county.
“Population reductions without facility closures often fall short of realizing cost savings,” the motion reads in part. “Closure of MCJ, with appropriate planning, would help to address budget shortfalls within the Sheriff’s Department while also allowing for additional funds to be redirected into building up the system of care.”
That “system of care” would include more diversion programs as well as resources to help those released during the pandemic find a place in the community rather than committing new crimes.
A mother who lost her child seemed to acknowledge a middle ground.
Anna Estevez, whose 5-year-old son, Aramazd Andressian, was smothered to death by his father in the back seat of a car after a 2017 trip to Disneyland, said she was forever grateful to homicide detectives who helped investigate her son’s death.
“I wholeheartedly support the dedication, the integrity, the determination and the passion that law enforcement officers put forth to keep our community safe,” Estevez said. “What I do not support is police brutality, misuse of power, corruption, incompetence, misuse of funding and a lack of transparent accountability.
“The concept of defunding police should not be to eradicate departments or bureaus, but to reimagine how law enforcement and citizens can work together to collectively bring about productive and greatly needed change.”