Sheriff, Supervisor Showdown Stretches on

Sheriff Alex Villanueva addresses the audience at Duke's in 2018.

Last month, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted, 3-2, to explore options for removing LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. The motion was authored by outgoing Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who oversees a stretch of land from Culver City to Carson, and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, whose district encompasses most of West LA County—including Malibu. They also moved to explore options for curtailing the sheriff’s power, including possibly removing the sheriff’s department as municipal law enforcement in cities like Malibu.

Most experts agree that removing the sheriff, who is a publicly elected official (as opposed to a police chief, who would be privately hired and approved by a city council), would likely take an amendment to the county’s charter and the California State Constitution, both of which would have to be voted on by the public. That’s a tall order, especially considering a constitutional amendment would have to be put before the whole state. 

A dark horse candidate, Villanueva ran for the sheriff position in 2018, beating first-term sheriff Jim McDonnell. That race was the first time in a century that an incumbent had been unseated in the LASD. Villanueva had more than 30 years of experience with the department, but none at the upper levels of management. He ran as a reformer, “trumpeting his status as a Democrat” the LA Times wrote, and earning an endorsement from an immigrants’ rights group after promising to kick US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents out of the county’s jail system. He inherited control of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, which had been rocked in recent years by scandals such as the conviction of former Sheriff Lee Baca for obstructing an FBI probe into the jails. 

Villanueva’s tenure, though, has been marked by charges of corruption. Inspector General Max Huntsman claimed Villanueva’s department stonewalled him by refusing to hand over documents he requested and blocking him from attending a key autopsy; the inspector general position was created in 2013 specifically to provide oversight to the sheriff’s department in the wake of the Baca debacle. 

Villanueva called Huntsman “a political attack dog of the board [of supervisors]” in a Thursday, Nov. 12, interview with KPCC’s Larry Mantle. The sheriff said the inspector general had received every document he had requested “by the truckload” except for “what cannot be released by law, such as confidential personnel records [and] active criminal investigations” and that the inspector general had been privy to investigations for “every deputy-involved shooting.” 

The supervisors alleged that Villanueva has also resisted other oversight measures, such as refusing to show up in court for a subpoena from the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to testify about how he was protecting jail inmates from the coronavirus, according to LAist. In his KPCC interview, Villanueva described the subpoena as “a constitutional overreach.” Villanueva did not respond to an interview request by The Malibu Times’ deadline.

Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl’s motion also alleged that the county has “paid out more than $149 million in the last five years to settle lawsuits and satisfy judgments in cases in which deputies were involved in incidents that include civil rights violations, excessive force, sexual assault and killings,” the LA Times  reported.

The sheriff’s department’s treatment of journalists, such as KPCC’s Josie Huang, who was tackled to the ground while reporting on a protest in September, despite her wearing a press pass and announcing herself as a reporter, has also come under fire. 

“This is the latest in a long string of dishonest, unseemly, and evasive behavior from Sheriff Villanueva,” Kuehl wrote about Huang’s arrest in a September email to constituents. “I agree with the members of the Civilian Oversight Commission who expressed their belief last Thursday that it is time for the sheriff to resign.”

Villanueva defended his record to the supervisors after the motion was brought forward. He referenced his successes removing ICE officers from jails and equipping deputies with body cameras.

Though all five supervisors have been highly critical of the sheriff, termed-out Ridley-Thomas, in particular, is pulling no punches. 

“The status quo is hugely problematic and we have never in the history of the county seen things worse,” Ridley-Thomas said in a Wednesday, Nov. 11, radio interview with Mantle. “It would be a matter of a dereliction of duty on the part of the supervisors to allow these circumstances to persist without at least exploring how these situations with this sheriff could be corrected.” 

Ridley-Thomas said he did not want the public to have to wait until 2022 to elect a new sheriff: “Too much damage can be wrought as is the case now.”

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who represents an area from Marina del Rey to Diamond Bar, did not support the motion, saying that voters could instead recall the sheriff, or else vote for a new candidate in 2022. 

“Voters like it when the sheriff campaigns,” she told Mantle. “They like having the sheriff accountable to them. I don’t believe they want five politicians to take that power away from them.”