It may be nearly a year until the June 2022 primary, but candidates are already lining up to challenge embattled LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, including Cecil Rhambo—perhaps the strongest challenger to yet emerge.
Currently the chief of the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) police department and once an assistant sheriff under former LA Sheriff Lee Baca, Rhambo announced his candidacy on July 12 with a video titled “For Good.” In it, he focuses on reforming the LASD.
Next year’s sheriff’s election promises to be “rollicking” LA Mag predicted, citing the campaign video segment where Rhambo refers to Villanueva as the “Donald Trump of LA County.”
Rhambo’s second online campaign video, released Aug. 3, focuses on the deputy gangs within the sheriff’s department. In it, Rhambo charges Villanueva with failing to acknowledge the problem or enact any policy or cultural changes in the sheriff’s department to break up the gangs.
“That’s why I support officer decertification for officers who are convicted of criminal and terminable misconduct, including being a part of a deputy gang,” Rhambo states in the video.
The elected sheriff position is the equivalent of Malibu’s chief of police, because the city contracts with the LA County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services. Villanueva has increasingly come under fire from the Democrats and unions that helped get him elected in December 2018 and clashes repeatedly with the LA County Board of Supervisors and the LA County Civilian Oversight Commission.
For example, the LASD is currently being investigated by the Civilian Oversight Commission for the “harassment of families following a fatal use of force.” In addition, the California Department of Justice began an inquiry into a series of fatal LASD shootings.
Villanueva’s refusal to cooperate got so bad that in 2020, the Civilian Oversight Commission passed a resolution expressing “no confidence” in his leadership. Two county supervisors, Sheila Kuehl (representing the county’s third district, which includes Malibu) and Mark Ridley-Thomas, called on him to resign. They accused him of rehiring officials that were fired for cause and ignoring policing reforms instituted after the corruption scandals that brought down Baca and other commanders.
Kuehl officially snubbed Villanueva and endorsed Rhambo for sheriff on Aug. 2. Her prepared statement said: “It’s become ever more apparent that we need real change at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department—and we need it now … Chief Rhambo understands the transformational moment we’re in and the urgent need for balanced reform at the LASD. As sheriff, I know Cecil will work … to root out corruption, end deputy gangs and bring real and lasting reform to the department.”
As part of an investigation now being conducted by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) on the subject of so-called deputy gangs, Villanueva refused to comply with a subpoena until a superior court judge ruled against him last month and set a hearing for Aug. 12.
When Villanueva took it upon himself to rout a large homeless encampment on the Venice Boardwalk—within the City of Los Angeles, where the LAPD has primary jurisdiction—on June 7, he was roundly criticized for political grandstanding.
Kuehl released a statement saying she was “deeply disturbed” by the “sudden appearance of armed sheriff’s deputies” there, calling their actions counterproductive and disruptive. “When the Sheriff says he has beds, he means beds in jail,” Kuehl’s statement continued.
Last month, the LA County Democratic Party called for Villanueva to resign, also asserting he allowed deputy gangs to exist and did little to halt police brutality.
At the local Malibu level, Villanueva angered Malibu City officials last year when he appointed Chuck Becerra as the new captain at Lost Hills Station in June 2020 without consulting the contract cities. The sheriff justified his action as an “emergency appointment” in the midst of the pandemic. Becerra was the candidate who ranked 10th out of 10 in the summer of 2019 when the cities previously participated in selecting a new captain.
The shake-up was not the first in the sheriff’s relatively short tenture. Villanueva first booted Malibu’s LASD liaison Lt. Jennifer Seetoo, a 22-year veteran of the department who was well-liked by the community, followed by Cpt. Matthew Vander Horck, the No. 1 pick of the five COG (council of government) cities, who was temporarily demoted and reassigned without notice.
Despite all the accusations, Villanueva appeared to be unfazed. He called his critics, “Divisive, politically motivated and downright un-American,” in a public statement.
Kuehl’s office wrote that Villanueva “brags on Facebook about giving away a record number of taxpayer-subsidized conceal and carry gun permits, and calls investigations into deputy-involved shootings a ‘circus stunt.’”
Rhambo isn’t the only one running against Villanueva, only the latest. On April 28, the first person to challenge him by announcing his candidacy for Sheriff was Eliezer Vera, a chief at LASD with 32 years’ service and once a strong supporter of Villanueva. Others include LASD Lt. Eric Strong, Enrique Del Real and April Saucedo Hood.