By Terry Miller
It has not been a very good few years for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). Scandals have riddled the department including the incarceration of several high-ranking members of the LASD.
Former Sheriff Lee Baca — who was criticized for proposing a half-percent sales tax increase in 2004 to hire more deputies, placing a friend on the payroll, taking gifts, and for releasing inmates from the jail early — was sentenced to three years in federal prison on May 12, 2017 for overseeing a scheme to obstruct an FBI investigation into abuses inside county jails and then lying to prosecutors about his role. Baca began his sentence on Feb. 5, 2020. His undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, was convicted April 4, 2016, in federal court of conspiring to obstruct justice and a count of obstructing justice. Considered the “ringleader” of the plot, Tanaka got five fears in federal prison.
U.S. attorney Eileen Decker managed to win 21 convictions as a result of the FBI investigation into the department. The charges varied from corruption to inmate abuse.
Now, the new man at the top of the department, Alex Villanueva, has been under considerable fire by not only the rank and file and the public but also powerful leaders who think it’s time for him to go.
“It’s with great reluctance that I’m calling for Sheriff (Alex) Villanueva to resign,” said Civilian Oversight Commissioner Robert Bonner, a former federal prosecutor and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, in September. “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department itself deserves better. The men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deserve better.”
Patti Giggans, chair of the commission, concurred in spades, saying “The sheriff’s department does not have the leader it deserves.”
Bonner also criticized the sheriff for failing to build a working relationship with the Board of Supervisors, saying Villanueva has “gone out of his way to alienate and insult supervisors.”
In September, the commission expressed skepticism over the sheriff’s version of events leading to the arrest of KPPC reporter Josie Huang and asked county attorneys to prepare a report on legal responsibilities involved in law enforcement activities at protests. The commission also noted the sheriff’s handling of the deputies who took repugnant photos of victims of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash scene and shared them.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas said they supported theses increasing calls for Villanueva’s resignation. “Like the members of the Civilian Oversight Commission, I remain troubled by the Sheriff’s conduct and the way he has interfered with advancing reform and enhancing accountability,” Ridley-Thomas said in a statement in September.
Following these initial calls for his resignation last month, Villanueva said the calls for his ouster were “downright un-American” and indicated he would not honor any subpoena from the Civilian Oversight Commission. Villanueva insists that his direct supervisor is the state’s Attorney General’s Office, not the commission, which he calls a “political body appointed by the Board of Supervisors,” with whom he has repeatedly clashed.
“They’re just part of the echo chamber of the board,” he said. “And unfortunately, the route they take is not one that is going to engender goodwill … between myself or the organization, because there’s a fine line being a watchdog and an attack dog, a political attack dog. And that’s pretty much the line they’ve crossed, along with (Inspector General) Max Huntsman. In fact, they crossed that line a long time ago, this is just the latest example of that.”
Then last Thursday, the commission unanimously voted (8-0) to approve a resolution expressing no confidence in Villanueva’s leadership and calling for his resignation. The commission also accused the sheriff of failing to cooperate with the oversight panel.
“Sheriff Villanueva has repeatedly failed to comply with a subpoena compelling the production of evidence related to the Bryant investigation and the County is currently facing a lawsuit seeking damages for the Sheriff’s Department’s failure to ensure that the photos were used for investigative purposes only,” they wrote. The commission also noted that Villanueva ignored a subpoena for his attendance at a meeting about the management of COVID in county jails and then challenged it in court.
“The resolution highlights that L.A. County residents deserve a Sheriff’s Department that is cooperative, respectful, transparent, accountable, trustworthy, and amenable to change,” said Brian K. Williams, executive director of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.
Despite its strongly phrased resolution, the commission “remains committed to implementing constructive reforms in collaboration with Sheriff Villanueva and wishes to see Sheriff Villanueva succeed in rebuilding the Sheriff’s Department.” That remains doubtful among increasing disagreements between the two.
At the beginning of September, the Board of Supervisors announced the department had been awarded $25.5 million to fund the body cameras it so desperately needs.
“In discussions about law enforcement accountability and greater transparency, which, frankly, come amid nationwide unrest over police brutality and use of deadly force, implementation of body worn cameras must be a priority for LASD,” Ridley-Thomas said in a statement at the time.