Local Officials Question Sheriff Over Rapid Staffing Turnover

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva addresses a crowd gathered in Calabasas on Tuesday, March 3.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva had little response to questions posed Tuesday night about the chain of firings and promotions that have occurred at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station since his installation 15 months ago.

The sheriff said recent new hires at the local sheriff’s outpost, including a whole new crop of young sheriff’s lieutenants who will be stationed here for several years, will bring stability.

At a community listening session in Calabasas on Tuesday night, the sheriff was questioned by several Malibu residents about the series of demotions at the station, which serves Malibu, four other western LA County cities and a giant chunk of unincorporated land. 

The chairman of Malibu’s Public Safety Commission, Chris Frost, told the sheriff in front of about 200 people that he had concerns about the demotions and transfers of three recent sheriff’s liaisons to Malibu.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority of any city … obviously,” Frost said. “And the turnover of personnel at the Lost Hills Station is very disruptive to the law enforcement effort and the safety in the city of Malibu.

“It is important for the city manager and the other heads in our city government to have good communication, but without continuity, this cannot happen,” he continued.

Villanueva answered that he is addressing those issues by making sure that all deputies assigned to any station are kept there for four years before being promoted out.

“Building relationships is not easy, it doesn’t happen overnight, and I agree with you wholeheartedly … We can’t be changing personnel and expects him how to improve the working relationship,” Villanueva said.

The sheriff was peppered by questions from people from several different cities about the recent demotions and removals of commanders at Malibu/Lost Hills. He said his comments were restricted because personnel decisions could not be discussed publicly, and because lawsuits have been filed by two deposed commanders, both former Malibu liaisons to the station, Lt. Jim Royal and Lt. Jennifer Seetoo. 

“I can say that any decisions that we make is definitely not based on cronyism; it’s based on facts on the ground,” Villanueva said. “You may not be aware of all of them. You have to have faith your city leaders, your city manager and your city council is well aware of them and understand the reasons we take moving forward.” 

If Villanueva is sharing those reasons with Malibu city officials, that runs contrary to their public statements. City Manager Reva Feldman and city council members have repeatedly said they are being caught by surprise by recent sheriff’s office transfers. most particularly the sudden departure of Seetoo. 

The sheriff also deflected questions from Calabasas residents about reports in the LA Times, which revealed that sheriff’s deputies had been displaying gruesome cell phone pictures shot at the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash scene in a bar in Norwalk. 

The Times also reported Villanueva himself apparently violated his own department’s written policies by demanding that deputies delete the cellphone pictures, instead of preserving them as evidence.

Villanueva challenged a reporter Tuesday night in Calabasas: “Evidence of what? What was the crime? What would you want if those photos were of your family member?”

At the time of the photo deletion incident, the area was designated a crime scene and evidence was being taken by federal safety investigators.

Villanueva also took credit for improving morale and increasing hiring in the department, shaving one third of the nearly 1,000 vacancies he inherited when he took office.

He said the Malibu/Lost Hills Station is now only two deputies below full staffing: “A record,” he said.