AG Bonta needs to investigate the Riverside Sheriff’s Department

In 2021, deputies of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (RSD) shot and killed more people than in any other year of its recent history.

When asked about this, Sheriff Chad Bianco called it, “an anomaly.”

That response is all too typical for the RSD, and Bianco in particular, whose responses to the blatant indications that the department’s actions on the streets, in its jails, and in its policies — including refusals to comply with court and state directives — make a mockery of its motto, “Service Above Self.”

Last year, more than 20 community and activist organizations asked California’s Attorney General, Rob Bonta, to investigate the RSD. Led by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Starting Over Inc., and Riverside All of Us or None, the letter said, “We write to the Attorney General’s office after exhausting all other routes to obtain basic standards of accountability and humane treatment of Riverside County residents.”

The request is critical. There are numerous other troubling statistics, and they, too, are not anomalies.

From 2019 to 2020, RSD deputies reportedly shot at people 41 times. In 31 of those cases, the victims were not perceived to be armed with a firearm, bringing into question whether RSD used deadly force only when necessary or in defense of life, as required by law.

In the years 2013 to 2021, RSD deputies killed more people in the course of making arrests than almost all (92%) of California sheriff’s departments.

Despite increases in funding, the RSD solved fewer homicides than 72% of sheriff departments in the state.

Bianco’s disregard for the law, callousness and sheer incompetency were on full, tragic display in his handling of the COVID-19 crises in the county’s jail system, which the RSD oversees.

According to the latest figures from the Riverside University Health System-Public Health, more than 1,400 people incarcerated in Riverside County jails contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Bianco, in a news briefing viewed widely online, essentially said they deserved it. “If you don’t want to catch this virus while you’re in custody,” he said, “don’t break the law.”

More than 80% of people housed in Riverside jails did not “break the law.” They are awaiting trial, and as any young child who has taken a civics class — or immigrant studying for citizenship — could tell the sheriff, people in the United States who have not had their day in court are innocent.

As Lisa Matus, who had two sons in a Riverside facility awaiting trial, asked in a news report, “Who makes him a judge now?”

Of course, no one in county jails should be carelessly exposed to a deadly virus. But while other sheriffs in California were taking measures to reduce overcrowded jail populations, Bianco refused to do so. Predictably, the jail system that the RSD oversees had some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks of any in the state.

Finally, in 2020 a federal judge ordered the RSD to, at a minimum, come up with a plan to provide for social distancing, saying that the department had “failed to demonstrate that it is currently taking adequate precautions.”

As outlined in our letter to the attorney general, people in the jails who were not sick were grouped with people who were obviously ill. The partner of an incarcerated man reported that he was grouped in court for eight hours with someone who had tested positive for COVID.  “At times, they were shackled together.”

Others told of being denied life-saving medications for diabetes and mental illness; denial of soap, clean clothes, and cleaning supplies; and the issuing of a single mask to be worn for long periods without instructions for cleaning. There was also a lack of COVID tests, likely leading to an undercount of people infected. And in many cases, the staff went maskless — not a surprise given that Bianco has publicly stated he refuses to enforce vaccination mandates.

It’s hardly the first time Riverside County sheriffs have refused to protect those in their custody. In 2015, the RSD entered a consent decree in a federal lawsuit for failing to provide minimally adequate medical and mental health care to the people incarcerated in its jails.

Continued rampant deputy violence, persistently inhumane jail conditions, and the RSD’s refusal to protect people in county custody from COVID-19 are all reasons that it is time for the attorney general to investigate.

We can’t wait any longer as the RSD continues to disregard the well-being of our communities. It is imperative that AG Bonta act now to ensure justice and accountability for all those who have been and continue to be harmed by the RSD.

Luis Nolasco is a senior policy advocate and organizer at the ACLU of Southern California. Avalon Edwards is a policy associate at Starting Over Inc.