Los Angeles

L.A. Sheriff refutes lawsuit claims; boasts decontamination and decompressing efforts

With circulating rumors of a civil rights lawsuit, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva directed attention towards the positive progress that has been made amidst the pandemic.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department announced that it’s leading the charge in ground-breaking decontamination efforts by unveiling a new COVID-19 Regional Decontamination Center Monday morning. The center, located at the Sybil Brand Institute in Monterey Park, has the capacity to disinfect up to 30,000 N95 masks daily, and save the county more than $18 million.

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva boasted the center is a great example of “innovation, partnership and fiscal prudence.” The LASD is the first law enforcement agency in the nation to invest in a project of this type, and collaborated with the Los Angeles Fire Department as well as the Department of Health Services to do so.

The idea was sparked by the rise in counterfeit N95 masks, most notably the recent FBI investigation which revealed that over 39 million masks slated for California never existed in the first place.

“This problem led the sheriff’s department to pose a question,” Villanueva said. “How can we reuse the existing personal protective gear? Not only for our deputies, but for our county partners, specifically health care and firefighters.”

LASD Captain Chris Kovak spearheaded the research alongside Lieutenant Shawnee Hinchman.

“They did not sit back and hope the lack of PP [personnel protection] worldwide would solve itself,” Villanueva said. “As their team stated, ‘hope is not a strategy.’”

Two weeks and $1700 later, they discovered a solution: hydrogen peroxide. When the household chemical is placed in an airtight chamber at highly concentrated levels, it creates a decontaminating mist. Once the mist is sprayed on a mask, it can cleanse the mask of all pathogens in just a few hours without stripping the mask of its protective qualities.

The Center for Disease Control approved the process and cleared workers to reuse masks treated through this process up to 20 times. The decontamination center will not only ensure the safety of the Sheriff’s Department, but healthcare workers and first responders across Los Angeles.

The ideal option would be to buy new N95 masks. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, so does the shortage of such protective equipment. By decontaminating the masks, personnel will remain protected while saving millions of dollars.

A lawsuit filed on Friday afternoon by a handful of civil rights groups including Justice LA, pointed the finger at Sheriff Villanueva for providing poor protection for inmates from COVID-19.

The lawsuit claims that inmates in the LA county jail system are not able to observe proper social distancing, do not have access to adequate sanitation resources like soap and must wait days or even weeks to receive medical attention for COVID-19 related symptoms.

“We have not been served with a lawsuit yet,” Villanueva said, in response to the reporter. “But I can say as a general rule we’ve decompressed and depopulated the jail system by over 5,000 inmates now we’re under 12,000 and our starting point was over 17,000.”

Villanueva explained the LASD is not only the largest jail system in the nation, but the first in the nation to attempt to decompress and depopulate the jail system.

The JusticeLA Coalition is one of the activist groups leading the lawsuit against LA county jails. One of their chief complaints is the lack of necessary sanitation within jails.

“We have the ability to wash our hands, use disinfectant, put on a mask when we please, or when we find this a situation calls for it,” Michael Saavedra, a plaintiff for the US Justice Coalition said. “In prison, they don't have any of those options, they can't say to distance themselves from other prisoners. They oftentimes don't have running water, or soap or disinfectant are the type of tools necessary to fight off this infection.”

LASD released most inmates facing misdemeanor charges, those with less than 60 days left on their sentence and those facing probation violations or technical parole. The department is also holding hearings for pretrial detainees and low-level felony offenses to determine if more inmates are eligible for release.

By depopulating the jails, there is more space for inmates to observe social distancing, and to move or isolate populations when needed.

The Sheriff said the system that was put in place was “intentional from the very beginning” and that the department has to weigh the public safety of the community outside of the jail walls with the community within.

“There’s no way we could release that many inmates to have the social distancing recommended by the CDC,” Villanueva reasoned. ”It’d be physically impossible and you would be putting people on the street people that you would not want to see out on the street.”