In the race for Los Angeles County sheriff, the difference between the two candidates is stark. As voters put check marks on ballots through Election Day, Nov. 8, they will choose who will run the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for four years. It is the largest sheriff’s department in the world, with 18,000 employees providing law enforcement in a county of more than 10 million people, serving 141 unincorporated communities and 42 cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department. The department also oversees jails and juvenile halls and staffs the patrols at bus and train depots for LA County Metro.
At the forefront is Sheriff Alex Villanueva, a combative, outspoken sheriff who fights off oversight and says the independence of the department is at stake. His challenger, who came in a close second in the June primary, is Robert Luna, former Long Beach police chief who welcomes collaboration from the county Board of Supervisors, other county departments and academicians.
While not in the voters’ eye as often as the race for mayor of Los Angeles, the outcome of this race will directly impact county services and policies, from treatment of inmates and the homeless to running the court system. The winner will be involved in correcting a failed jail system that is under a court order to improve, resolving internal issues involving controversial deputy gangs, alleged abuses of power and an all-out-war between the sheriff and the county supervisors.
The two candidates responses to these issues differ dramatically.
When Villanueva was asked why he can’t get along with the five supervisors — all of whom have backed Luna — he said it was a conspiracy to make him a one-term sheriff and weaken his department. “The board has invested in negative campaigning against me,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News on Sept. 29.
Villanueva criticized Luna for pledging to work with the Board of Supervisors and cooperate with the county’s Civilian Oversight Commission, which is investigating deputy gangs, and the department, for using their power to intimidate and investigate opponents.
Villanueva called Luna a puppet of the county supervisors. “Promising to make nice with the supervisors — that is not a proposal,” he said, attacking Luna as a “failed officer” with no vision.
Luna, in an interview on Oct. 3 with this newspaper, responded: “My opponent does not get along with any of the supervisors; he constantly demeans them. The fact that I can work with elected officials is a very positive thing.
“This is what he considers a puppet: Actually working with people. That is his lack of executive experience.”
On jail overcrowding
Villanueva liked the Board of Supervisors’ idea to tear down Men’s Central Jail and build instead a one-stop jail/mental health treatment facility. But that proposal was dropped by the board in 2019 in favor of spreading such facilities throughout L.A. County. “We were going to reduce the jail population by 1,000 and close older facilities. Now that project isn’t going forward,” Villanueva lamented.
Villanueva said he supports all kinds of facilities, from community-based treatment centers to secured, locked-down facilities. His ideas are not that different from a recent board motion to move 7,000 detainees with mental illness from the jails into a variety of mental health treatment centers.
L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, July 7, 2020 approved a plan to study closing Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles within a year. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Luna takes a different tack, saying the jail system is not working, and calling the county’s jails the worst in the nation. He wants to build new mental health facilities while leaving violent offenders incarcerated.
He said Men’s Central Jail should be replaced, “But we can’t do it overnight,” he emphasized. “I advocate for a community-based system of care that involves wraparound services before we can think of closing that facility down.”
He wants to bring in, from academia, experts on mental health and substance abuse and says he wants to work in partnership with the county departments whose personnel are trained in these areas. Luna said the county jail population — about 15,000 — is 70% illiterate. He wants to re-establish nonprofits who teach reading and writing to detainees, including education to get their high school diplomas.
On homeless encampments
The Sheriff’s Department has a team of deputies who help clear homeless encampments. Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger recently added deputies to the team working in the Antelope Valley, saying the program is effective.
Villanueva agreed, adding that the county must stop unhoused individuals from entering California from out of state.
Luna, 56, who spent 36 years at the Long Beach Police Department, serving as chief of police from 2014 until he retired in December 2021, said he collaborated with the Long Beach health and fire departments when addressing homelessness.
In Long Beach, each department shared data on encounters with unhoused people and used that information to adjust their approaches. “We started to focus on providing services for those who really needed it,” Luna said. “And we broke down the silos.”
If elected sheriff, he said he will use his Long Beach experience as a model. “I can work with L.A. County Department of Health and mental health as well as the VA hospital,” he said.
On deputy gangs, reforms
When asked about witnesses who told attorneys and others at the Civilian Oversight Commission that deputy sheriff gangs known as the Banditos operated out of the department’s East Los Angeles Station, Villanueva denied they existed and called the accusations “a sick joke.”
“I don’t think there ever had been (deputy) gang members,” he said in an interview. “They have fraternal groups, especially when drinking is involved. That is nothing unusual.”
“It still doesn’t make you a gang member, if you have a matching tattoo,” he added. He blames the supervisors who appointed the members to the oversight commission. “It is a political campaign. It is all about getting at me,” he said.
Luna said the existence of deputy gangs is “well documented,” but the overwhelming majority of sworn deputies are good employees who need better leadership. “How can you fix a problem that you won’t admit occurs?” he asked.
Luna wants to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to shine a light on deputy gangs, lack of oversight and intimidation of opponents. “I want to pull back the curtain and open every drawer, open our books,” he said. “We need accountability.”
Villanueva said he has reformed the department, firing four officers and suspending 32 without pay, while transferring 36 others, he said. He has hired 1,100 new deputies, added body cameras on deputies, and removed the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from the jails, he said in an interview.
“We are moving to reform the department. But you don’t want to make a hard turn either way, and everyone falls off the deck,” Villanueva said.
Polls, pundits and politics
Villanueva, who ran in 2018 as a progressive Democrat and won, says he left the progressive wing of the party when its members began advocating to defund law enforcement, a position he strongly opposes. “I am a law-and-order Democrat, like JFK and LBJ vintage,” he said.
Villanueva was endorsed by the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association. Luna, also a Democrat, was endorsed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.
Luna said potential voters he met on the campaign trail want a change in leadership. “The people are clear: He duped us. He lied to us. He wasn’t who we thought he was,” said Luna. “They are tired of all the scandals and the drama. They want a sheriff who can work with people.”
Luna has the support of the seven candidates who ran for sheriff in the June primary election, who in a joint statement said: “We all ran for sheriff to make L.A. County safer and bring needed change to the Department. We got to know Chief Luna on the campaign trail during the primary, and we trust him to lead the Sheriff’s Department forward to increase public safety and public trust in all of our communities.”
A recent poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, said 36% of likely voters support Luna, while 26% support Villanueva. The poll said 36% of voters remain undecided.
“The sentiment seems to be to get a new sheriff. And it is clear Luna is inheriting the anti-Villaneuva vote,” said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, on Tuesday, Oct. 4.
Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute For Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, said the sheriff’s race is not the first thing that comes to the mind of county voters. And he says those undecided voters will play a role in the outcome.
Many voters see Luna as an acceptable alternative, he said. “It doesn’t appear Villanueva is doing very well. It appears Luna has a substantial lead,” said Sonenshein on Tuesday, Oct. 4.
“I am very encouraged. But I take absolutely nothing for granted,” Luna said. “I am going to work harder now than I ever have.”
Villanueva said he has the trust of his deputies and staff: “I am focusing on leading the department into the future.”
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