Why California Sheriff’s Reformers Should Love Alex Villanueva
Every time we get an update from election officials, it becomes clearer how much Sheriff Alex Villanueva has underestimated the people of Los Angeles County.
People like Helen Jones, a black woman who grew up too much scrutiny in Watts.
It was in 2009 that her son, John Horton, died in prison, just weeks after his 22nd birthday. Initially, the sheriff’s department called it a suicide, saying he hanged himself. But subsequent medical reports revealed signs of severe physical trauma.
Jones wanted to pursue criminal charges, but filed a wrongful death lawsuit instead. The county settled in 2016 for $2 million.
“The sheriff’s department is really untouchable,” she told me, “and that’s always how everyone feels.”
This is what put Jones on the path to activism. And that activism set her on the path to joining the coalition that sued Villanueva and helped put Measure A, which would empower the LA County Board of Supervisors to remove an elected sheriff from office, on the ballot of this month.
“We really need this to pass because, right now, there’s no one to really hold the sheriff’s department accountable,” Jones said. “And that’s why they do what they do.”
These are the types of comments from the types of people with the types of politics that Villanueva spent four years in office, dismissing with a condescending smile or a sniffle.
Well, now a whopping 69% of LA County voters — myself included — supported Measure A. It’s Thursday night, with more than 1.4 million ballots counted. That’s a percentage that has remained remarkably stable since election night.
For that, I’m sure Villanueva has already compiled a list of people to blame. Activists like Jones. Other elected officials, like Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who helped persuade her colleagues to put Measure A ahead of voters.
But really, the sheriff should just look in the mirror. Or revisit what he said in a brief speech on election night.
“We did things that nobody had ever done before,” he told the room of disappointed fans, who are probably even more disappointed now. “We spoke truth to power.”
Villanueva spoke her truth to power, okay.
to the Supervisory Board. They control her department’s $3.8 billion budget, but that hasn’t stopped him from hurling insults at them on Facebook or having one served with a search warrant, dragging her out barefoot.
To Inspector General Max Huntsman, whom Villanueva locked out of the Sheriff’s Department offices and computers, preventing the county watchdog from doing its job.
To the Civilian Oversight Commission, a member of which had been investigating false accusations – pun intended.
And, of course, LA County Dist. Atti. George Gascón, whose office opened a criminal investigation this week into whether Villanueva violated state law by doing a video begging MPs to donate to his re-election campaign.
“It’s up to each of you who you want to be as sheriff,” he implored. “We’re going to win this thing, and God willing, and if you want to help, everything will help us get our message across, get our ads online and on TV, and send our text messages.”
Indeed, Villanueva has spent his entire first term as sheriff breaking the rules and waging war over who has and does not have the power to hold him accountable. And in doing so, he cruelly underestimated how much it would remind voters of who really holds the power: we do.
That’s why he trails retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna 58% to 42% at last count. That’s even worse than the margin on election night, when Luna was ahead 57% to 43%.
“People,” as Eric Strong, a department lieutenant who lost his bid for sheriff in the June primary, told The Times on election night, “are tired of Villanueva’s ridicule.”
I know I am.
The question is, when will voters in other California counties be as tired of their sheriffs as we are of ours? And when are they going to demand the power to impose the real responsibility that we have?
Because while it’s easy to cling to Villanueva and her many weaknesses and flaws, it’s important to remember that there are sheriffs across the state who brazenly abuse the public trust without fear of repercussions.
A few months ago, for example, I wrote about outgoing San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos.
He sent four members of his department to the small town of Logansport, Indiana, to conduct a criminal investigation into what happened to a custom Batmobile commissioned by one of his wealthiest campaign donors. They even had extradition orders for what should have been dealt with in civil court.
The only reason this abuse of power came to light was because a TV reporter caught wind of it. This led to a flood of angry calls and emails to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, which in response ordered an independent investigation but said it could do nothing.
The case was ultimately dismissed.
“What we can do is extremely limited,” Supervisor Don Horsley, who served as county sheriff for 14 years, told me at the time. “It’s the California Constitution. The sheriff is an elected officer. We can’t remove them from office.
The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors said the same after Sheriff Scott Jones also locked the inspector general out of his department’s offices and computers, ending oversight.
And yet, these claims of supposed impotence are not true.
Although sheriffs are effectively elected and under the state constitution they cannot be fired like municipal police chiefs, all charter counties can do what Los Angeles County does with Measure A. San Bernardino County did it in 2002. All it takes is political will. . And if the sheriffs underestimated the people of California, so did most of the supervisory boards.
In LA, Supervisor Mitchell said she pushed for what became Measure A when she joined the board last year because people had been telling her for years that they weren’t doing don’t trust the sheriff’s department. Who the sheriff is didn’t seem to matter, so systemic change to the office itself was needed.
“Future sheriffs will understand that their power is not unchecked,” Mitchell said. “And that we will and can create appropriate mechanisms to ensure accountability.”
Ultimately, however, real reform must happen at the state level, because not every county can do what Los Angeles and other charter counties can do.
“Let’s hope state lawmakers pay attention to this vote. To LA County which has a quarter of the population and has the largest sheriff’s department in the country,” said Andrés Dae Keun Kwon, policy adviser and senior organizer at the ACLU of Southern California, which works on this issue. For years. “But the more important steps other counties can take as well — whatever they can do — it can really be a drumbeat for the need for greater accountability in state law.”
Jones, who eagerly follows the election results, watches Villanueva sink and measure A rise, agreed that LA County is the leader, with a power that should not be underestimated.
“People believe that nothing can change like this, until it changes,” she told me. “And once people see the change, I believe in a net everywhere else. I really do.”
Los Angeles Times