California AG opens civil rights probe into sheriff's office

California Attorney General Rob Bonta announces a civil rights investigation into the Riverside County Sheriff's Office on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, during a news conference in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Stefanie Dazio) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The California attorney general on Thursday opened a civil rights investigation into the Riverside County Sheriff's Office, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in Southern California, after deaths in county jails hit a two-decade high last year and other allegations of excessive use of force surfaced.

Attorney General Rob Bonta announced the investigation in Los Angeles following what he called “deeply concerning” allegations of misconduct within the sheriff's office and confinement conditions at the sheriff's jails. He did not give examples.

While Bonta said no specific incidents were a tipping point to prompt the civil rights investigation, there have been patterns in data — including disparate impacts on communities of color — that, in his words, have been "disturbing for some time.”

Exact figures on in-custody deaths, use of force incidents and misconduct allegations were not immediately available from his office Tuesday.

“It is time for us to shine a light on the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office and its practices,” he said during a news conference.

Bonta called the status of the trust between the department and the public “in peril" and alluded to the recent line-of-duty deaths of two Riverside deputies in shootings that rocked the county.

“Ensuring public trust and keeping our communities and officers safe is not mutually exclusive,” Bonta said.

Sheriff Chad Bianco, in a video response posted online, called the investigation “a political stunt” and said Bonta, a Democrat, was bowing to anti-law enforcement activists' demands.

“This will prove to be a complete waste of time and resources,” said Bianco, a Republican.

In 2021, the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the attorney general's office urging the state to investigate the Riverside department for what it called “its racist policing practices, rampant patrol and jail deaths, and its refusal to comply" with court orders.

The attorney general has the power to open civil investigations to determine whether a law enforcement agency has “engaged in a pattern or practice” of violating state or federal law. These cases are not criminal in nature and are meant to identify potential problems and then work with the agency to correct the issues, which are typically systemic violations of a community's constitutional rights.

The state agency has similar cases open into the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Those probes are ongoing.