Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has long been a danger to the people that he is sworn to serve. As the Los Angeles Times editorial board has noted, the extremely dubious investigation he recently launched against two prominent public officials who have criticized him is a sign of just how dangerous he has become—”the type of person against whom the law and the Constitution were intended to protect us.”
In 2020, Los Angeles voters demanded change, by voting for Measure J, a measure that would reallocate large sums of funding from incarceration and policing to social services and alternatives to incarceration. Reformers that have espoused these same values have been elected up and down the ballot, and they continue to be. Substantial progress has been made, but Sheriff Villanueva is endangering all of it with his reckless, self-serving populism that is not making people safer.
Sheriff Villanueva ran for office as a reformer, making it a priority to get ICE out of the jails. But once elected, voters soon learned that they had been fooled – Sheriff Villanueva was no reformer. Instead, a rogue Sheriff that has put the County Sheriff’s Department under a dark cloud of shame, scandal, and corruption.
Unlike most law enforcement, sheriffs are elected, so LA County voters will have a voice come November in whether he continues in his role.
But the range of unacceptable behavior during Villanueva’s time in office and this latest abuse of power points to a larger question facing policymakers: how else do we hold accountable violent, corrupt officials that have been sworn to serve the public?
Those are among the questions addressed in a new policy roadmap for local public officials who are interested in transforming public safety in the United States.
After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked a national movement calling for accountability and reform, People For the American Way spent two years talking to criminologists, community activists, people in law enforcement, and public officials. These experts were asked what it would take to end violence and corruption from law enforcement, and what would it take to make communities safer and more just, once and for all?
The result of those conversations is “All Safe,” a policy roadmap for moving communities toward greater safety and greater accountability.
“All Safe” outlines some positive steps already being taken by some public officials. For example, one key step that has been taken by municipalities throughout the country is the restructuring of public safety departments to reduce unnecessary interactions with armed law enforcement officers. The City of West Hollywood has taken proactive steps to invest in unarmed, crisis response teams, expanding its public safety infrastructure and spending to be more holistic and effective. This is the same approach being taken by reform-leading cities like Ithaca, New York, which has also adopted a strategy to strengthen the screening of potential hires to its public safety departments.
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Another necessary step to build safer, healthier communities for everyone is to strengthen policies that allow corrupt and violent officials to be held accountable. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has put a charter amendment on the ballot this fall, Measure A, to allow the Board of Supervisors to remove the sheriff, by a supermajority vote, for violations of law, neglect of duties, misuse of public funds or properties, falsification of documents, or obstruction of an investigation. The current board has signaled that it would be willing to use this power, if granted by the voters.
The record of Villanueva’s department – unjustifiable violence against civilians, resistance to accountability, and intimidation of critics and retaliations against political opponents – is a repudiation of the false narrative often promoted by Villanueva, that reform is somehow incompatible with improved public safety. In fact, the opposite is true.
The need to transform our public safety infrastructure is both an urgent and long-term task. Some Los Angeles area communities have gotten started, and have a choice to make this November, to make policing more effective, to keep communities safer, and to hold those that betray the trust of the public accountable.
Ben Jealous is president of People for the American Way. Lindsay Horvath is a councilmember who represents West Hollywood and is a candidate for Los Angeles County supervisor.