Oversight Panel Calls For Resignation Of LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva

FILE: L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks in August at the graduation ceremony for the latest Academy Class. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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In a significant erosion of support for Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the Sheriff's Civilian Oversight Commission Thursday called on him to resign as leader of one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country. Commissioners said the sheriff has obstructed oversight at nearly every turn and failed to address major problems at the agency, including the existence of "deputy gangs."

The commission's resolution describes "a serious lack of judgment and leadership by Sheriff Villanueva" and decries "his efforts to block meaningful reform." It also says Villanueva has restricted access to the department by the county's inspector general.

In an extraordinary move, the sheriff opened a criminal investigation into Inspector General Max Huntsman in 2019, accusing him of unlawfully accessing department records. Huntsman — and the county's attorney — said he had access to those files under the law that created his office. Members of the commission called the sheriff's move an act of intimidation.

LOST CONFIDENCE

The nine-member panel says it has lost confidence in Villanueva's ability to effectively govern the agency, which employs nearly 18,000 people and operates the largest local jail system in the country.

Villanueva was an unconventional candidate for sheriff when he beat incumbent Jim McDonnell in the 2018 election. He was a retired lieutenant with little management experience who had never supervised more than 100 people. Villanueva won largely because of the backing of the deputy's union and an endorsement by the L.A. County Democratic Party.

The vote Thursday to call on Villanueva to resign was unanimous. Some of the panel's most traditionally pro-law enforcement members agreed the sheriff must go, including former federal judge Robert Bonner, former Deputy District Attorney Lael Rubin, and former Sheriff's Lt. J.P. Harris.

Despite those credentials, Villanueva has called the panel anti-law enforcement.

"Their political philosophies are either they really, really hate cops or they slightly hate cops or they're not too sure," he said. In the sheriff's view, attempts by the panel to oversee his department are part of a "proxy war" by the Board of Supervisors. The board appoints the panel.

It's worth noting Villanueva's relationship with the board has deteriorated too — two members of the board have asked him to resign. Aspiring members of the board also are critical of the sheriff. In Wednesday's debate hosted by our newsroom, Herb Wesson and Holly Mitchell both said the sheriff was unqualified to do the job. They're vying for the open District 2 seat, which represents cities such as Carson, Compton, Culver City and Inglewood; all or part of L.A. neighborhoods including Crenshaw, Koreatown, La Brea, and Mar Vista; and other unincorporated areas of the county.

Villanueva did not immediately respond to our requests for comment on the commission's vote, though the sheriff's department issued a statement via Twitter, calling the resolution a "meritless politically motivated attack" that "is unsupported by real facts."

AN ELECTED OFFICE

The sheriff is elected by the voters — so it's unclear what effect the calls for resignation will have. In fact, several commissioners worried their resolution will close the door on any hope for effective oversight — even though it simultaneously calls on the sheriff to cooperate with the panel.

"It does seem to be a bit of a contradiction," said Harris. "I hope it doesn't close the door."

"He is the one that closed the door, he's the one that can open it," said Commissioner and Loyola Law School Professor Priscilla Ocen.

The vote comes amid a raging debate over policing in the country and a demand for more accountability and transparency. It also follows a series of controversial shootings by sheriff's deputies that drew angry protests, as well as accusations of brutality by the department during the George Floyd protests and other demonstrations.

Among the resolution's points:

  • Sheriff Villanueva removed the Sheriff's Department's constitutional policing advisors, while at the same time attempting to rehire deputies who were fired for cause, such as fabricating evidence and domestic violence.
  • Sheriff Villanueva alleged, without proof, that the disciplinary process was "unfair" and deactivated the disciplinary proceedings against deputies accused of using excessive force and committing child abuse.
  • Violent deputy cliques or gangs continue to operate within the department, particularly in the Compton and East Los Angeles stations... Despite Sheriff Villanueva's claims that members of these cliques/gangs have been disciplined or reassigned pursuant to Sheriff's Department policy, Inspector General Max Huntsman has said that he is "'aware of no implementation whatsoever' of the policy and that his office can't effectively investigate the secret societies 'because of the obstruction of the Sheriff's Department.'"

In another part of the resolution, the commission says the sheriff has "violated the First Amendment rights of residents engaging in protest activity as well as journalists covering protests." It cites the arrest of LAist/KPCC reporter Josie Huang, who was taken into custody by deputies last month after identifying herself as a member of the press. "In defending the arrest, Sheriff Villanueva cited inaccurate and misleading information that was contradicted by contemporaneous video footage."

THE BACKSTORY

When Villanueva took office in December of 2018, commissioners initially were hopeful for a better relationship with him than his predecessor Jim McDonnell, who sometimes resisted requests for information from the panel and attended only a handful of their meetings.

Indeed, Villanueva attended several meetings during his first few months in office but as commissioners' questions became more pointed about deputy discipline, use of force and other matters, he quit showing up.

Villanueva was particularly perturbed by the panel's demand for more information about his decision to rehire a former campaign aide who had been terminated by the department for alleged domestic violence and lying. The rehiring of Caren Carl Mandoyan sparked a lawsuit by the Board of Supervisors, and a judge ruled that it was unlawful.

His relationship with the nine-member civilian panel has steadily deteriorated since then, with his often refusing to even send subordinates to answer questions necessary for them to conduct effective oversight. McDonnell almost always sent his undersheriff to meetings — even if his responses to inquiries left the commission unsatisfied.

In May, Villanueva defied the first-ever subpoena by the commission to testify about how he was handling the spread of coronavirus inside L.A. County's sprawling jail system. The sheriff worried it would be a "public shaming" of him.

The commission was created by the Board of Supervisors in January of 2016 to increase transparency and accountability at the department. In March, voters approved a measure giving the commission subpoena power. At each point, criminal justice reform advocates expressed high hopes for better oversight and changes at the sheriff's department.

With the commission now at a standoff with the sheriff, nobody expressed much hope.

Among a few activists who spoke at the meeting, there was talk of a recall, which, for some, represents the only hope to oust a sheriff who's vowed to remain in power.

READ THE FULL RESOLUTION: