Newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva began his shrievalty Dec. 3 when he was sworn in at East Los Angeles College following a vote counting process that lasted weeks after Election Day in a close race with incumbent Jim McDonnell. As the county’s 33rd sheriff, Villanueva has promised to “reform, rebuild and restore” the Sheriff’s Department.
Villanueva, 55, last served as a lieutenant and a watch commander at the department’s Pico Rivera Station. He worked for the department for more than 30 years before retiring in February.
Villanueva is LA’s first Democratic sheriff in 138 years and the first to speak fluent Spanish. He was an underdog candidate who defeated McDonnell with 52.8 percent of the ballots cast, ultimately receiving 1.3 million votes in a county of more than 10 million people, according to final results by the LA County Registrar-Recorder/Clerk’s Office. McDonnell, elected in a landslide in 2014, was the first incumbent sheriff to be unseated in an election in LA County in more than a century.
McDonnell’s predecessor Lee Baca resigned in disgrace in 2014 and was sentenced to three years in federal prison in 2017 for his role in obstructing an FBI investigation into corruption and deputies’ abuse of inmates in county jails. Dozens of deputies and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka were also convicted in that scandal. Baca is currently out of jail while a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considers his appeal. Villanueva now says abuse of inmates in county jails “has almost disappeared,” and that the focus should be on inmate violence against jail personnel.
After pledging to kick federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents out of county jails, Villanueva’s voter base in the election included Latinos and progressives. At his swearing-in ceremony, he told his deputies that “the success of your career will be determined by how well you serve the community, not the political powers that be. Those days are over. We will not allow any divisive policies from outside LA or California dictate the way we do our job here in California. Our hard-working immigrant families shouldn’t have to wonder if we’re here to protect them or deport them.”
But now some progressive groups and others are concerned about a few of his other positions. For instance, he supports the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs’ (ALADS) lawsuit to block the release of a list of problem deputies known as the Brady List, which is now before the California Supreme Court. ALADS supported Villanueva’s campaign.
He also plans to limit the disciplinary role of two constitutional policing advisers. The LA Times editorial board wrote that Villanueva “has yet to make a convincing case that the real problem facing the Sheriff’s Department was too many deputies facing too much discipline, or that constitutional policing advisers were running amok,” and called on him to reconsider.
During his first week, Villanueva removed 18 high-ranking officials from their posts and told 500 other captains, commanders and lieutenants that he’s reviewing whether they will remain in their positions and that they should remove their rank insignia from their uniforms.
Villanueva recently spoke with the Pasadena Weekly about his priorities, what he plans to do differently from his predecessors and challenges facing the department.
Pasadena Weekly: What are your main priorities as the new LA County sheriff?
Sheriff Alex Villanueva: We’re converting our ‘Reform, Rebuild, Restore’ campaign slogan into an actual action plan. The first three days that I was actually at work … shows you the route I’m taking on that. On Tuesday, we did a leadership assessment for lieutenants and above. We did some leadership training. On Wednesday, we went to jail. We spent time doing an assessment of the ICE situation in our county jails and how we’re going to literally kick them out. On Thursday, we were working on the issue of body cam deployment.
What does it mean to the Latino community in Los Angeles to have a Latino sheriff who speaks fluent Spanish?
It’s important for them, and hopefully I can live up to their expectations of me. When any one group that has someone who’s a representative of that group enter into that leadership position, it’s always a good day. My mom’s side of the family is Polish, and I remember when John Paul II became pope, my grandma and my mom were walking a foot taller.
Do you support civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department? What should that ideally look like?
It has to be a partnership. The [state] constitution lays out that the oversight of the sheriff, per se, is the voters. And then from the operations standpoint, that’s where we’re going to work hand-in-hand with the oversight commission. I want them to be informed. I want them to have everything they need to be able to do their job effectively so I can make informed decisions based on their input. They represent stakeholders throughout the county.
How do you plan to reform the county jail system so there is less or no abuse of inmates?
It’s not just the abuse of inmates that’s the problem. That has almost disappeared. There are three elements to the problem of violence in our jails: the use of force from our personnel against inmates, the violence of inmate on inmate and the violence of inmates against staff. The outgoing sheriff focused solely on the force against inmates and forgot the other two. So we need to swing the pendulum back to the middle somewhere, where everyone can be in a safe environment in the jails, whether you’re an inmate, a civilian employee or a sworn deputy.
What should the Sheriff’s Department’s relationship with ICE look like?
They need to do their job and we need to not be involved in their federal immigration enforcement efforts. We want nothing to do with that. Our sole priority is providing public safety for all of LA County’s residents, regardless of immigration status. We have the largest undocumented population in the entire nation within our county, and public safety means the entire public. That includes them.
You had a large progressive voter base in this election, but now some progressives are worried about a few of your positions, such as limiting the disciplinary role of two constitutional policing advisers. Do you still plan to do that, and why is that a necessary step?
The individual one in particular that was involved in that, they went way beyond their mandate or their original intent of being constitutional policing advisers. They actually overrode the decisions of our own unit commanders and division chiefs, who are the ones who are imposing the discipline. That was not the intention of the entire program when it was set up. It’s something that looks nice on paper, and people unfortunately bought the idea hook, line and sinker that we were getting advice that was going to somehow put us in a better light in regards to the constitution, but what they did is they actually created a nightmare in terms of violating due process for employees and for the public as well. Now we have to undo some of that damage.
Do you still support ALADS’s lawsuit against releasing the Brady List, and if so, do you plan to compile a new list?
We want to have a list that’s accurate and fair, for sure. We’re going to use the Brady List as a starting point. We’re going to go through each and every case one by one, but ultimately the list itself is not the end game. The end goal is actually to make sure that those who provide testimony in court, who prepare written reports, who gather and submit evidence, that the process is not tainted or compromised so someone doesn’t end up being wrongfully convicted based on tainted testimony. That is the end game. To that end, we’re going to work very hard.
Where do you stand on deputy group tattoos?
I’m not going to tolerate a clique or any kind of mentality that goes from just having ink on your body to criminal behavior. That’s not acceptable. We’re looking at all of our options available to make sure that doesn’t happen. The problem with the tattoos and the cliques is one of unchecked hazing that went on for literally almost two decades. That was an outcome of that unchecked hazing. There was a failure of supervision and a failure of leadership, and we’re working hard to resolve that.
Do you see the Sheriff’s Department, under your command, doing anything differently in its relationships with municipalities such as Pasadena, as well as its role in international relations?
We’re like Grand Central Station for a lot of nations and a lot of the different immigrant groups. We want to have good, working relations with all 88 cities in the county. We provide constant law enforcement services to 42 of them, and we want to make sure we’re always a viable alternative for any city that’s in financial distress or is having difficulty with their own police department. We don’t want to take any police departments away. That’s not our goal by any means. We want them to be successful, but we’re a fallback option in case they have issues. That happens occasionally, especially when people get into hard financial situations. We can provide a more economical alternative for basic law enforcement services.
Is there anything you plan to do differently on the Mitrice Richardson case?
I’m very aware of that case, and we’re going to get to the bottom of what happened and what went wrong. I’m not satisfied with what we’ve done to date. The truth and reconciliation process is one of the first things we’re going to be addressing.
Can you tell me more about how you were discriminated against in terms of not being promoted in the Sheriff’s Department, and how do you change that culture in the department?
For the last almost 20 years, the department has been driven by cronyism. It was a political patronage system. If you didn’t fit the bill or, for example, if you were a minority, you were always limited to a very predetermined role in the organization. No matter what you did, how hard you worked or how much education you had, your future was already predetermined for you with a firm glass ceiling. I butted up against that glass ceiling my entire career. I said, ‘This is just unacceptable.’ I think every single employee has a right to play on a level playing field.