A stark choice in the L.A. sheriff’s race

What’s the job of sheriff in the largest county in America?

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is directly responsible for law enforcement in 42 of the county’s 88 cities and 141 unincorporated communities. The department also polices 216 county facilities, hospitals, and clinics throughout the County, plus nine community colleges, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and 37 Superior Courts. The department supervises thousands of inmates, more than 4,000 of them in the Men’s Central Jail. With a budget of nearly $3.6 billion, there are nearly 20,000 staff, including nearly 10,000 sworn deputies.

It’s a mammoth management responsibility, but for the last four years, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has seen his job as publicly battling the Board of Supervisors, the district attorney, city officials, the media and dissenters in his department to impose his own personal brand of bravado. With his broad-brimmed Stetson, the 2018 candidate who promised broad-based reform has turned into a trash-talking media hound.

We should have seen it coming. “No matter how hard I worked, how much schooling I got, every door was shut,” he claimed while running four years ago. “So I figured, well, there’s one door that’s always open, and that’s [the sheriff’s] office. That’s the one job they forgot to safeguard against.”

Villanueva’s opponent, Robert Luna, is the former Long Beach police chief.

“This guy launched a vengeance tour from the beginning,” Luna told me last week. “His actions speak for him: ‘I’ve got the power, I’m going to get payback.’”

The two offer voters a stark choice. In contrast to Villanueva’s combative stance, Luna emphasizes teamwork. “Instead of making excuses and blaming others, let’s take a 21st-century approach to reduce crime. Let’s be open to change, let’s work with the community, not against them,” Luna explains. “I’ll work to repair every relationship this man has broken.”

Given the magnitude of the job’s responsibilities, Luna says his first priorities will be to undertake “a top to bottom audit of the department’s strengths and shortcomings, report it out publicly and assemble a well-qualified leadership team. The overriding goal is to make people feel safe and improve their quality of life.” He pledges to draw deeply on the “amazing” people inside the department who have reached out and pleaded with him to “come in and save us from the dysfunction this man is causing.”

“For me, it’s not about ego,” Luna insists. “It’s being willing to collaborate and partner. You use the strengths of those around you. It’s fine if somebody else gets the credit.” He cites Sheriff Villanueva’s brash foray into LAPD’s jurisdiction on the Venice Boardwalk. “Individual deputies did fine work and the real credit should have gone to them and the social workers from the St. Joseph’s Center who actually placed homeless people into housing, not to Villanueva, grandstanding for the cameras.”

Luna draws on his long and distinguished career rising through the ranks to be chief in Long Beach, the county’s second-biggest city. “Teamwork is the only way to be successful in law enforcement. The tragic mistakes made in the response to the school shooter in Uvalde show that communication and coordination has to be better than it’s ever been.” Luna spent over a decade on the Long Beach SWAT team, honing the discipline of working together, experience that shaped his approach to executive leadership.

It’s no surprise that all seven of the other candidates who ran in the primary have rallied to support Luna. “There is a crisis of leadership, accountability, and public trust,” Luna maintains. “My goal is to enlist the full cooperation and consent of our community to get the job done.”

Rick Cole is a former mayor of Pasadena and city manager of Azusa, Ventura and Santa Monica.

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