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Alex Villanueva Says He Would Eliminate The LA Sheriff's Constitutional Policing Advisors

Alex Villanueva (Photo by KPCC/LAist)
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Seemingly on the cusp of ousting incumbent L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Alex Villanueva says he plans to eliminate the positions of two constitutional policing advisors who advise the sheriff and senior commanders on a variety of legally delicate matters, from enforcement of the department's use-of-force policy to the dispensing of discipline against deputies accused of misconduct.

McDonnell created the two positions after he assumed office. They're designed to improve department policies, practices and procedures "by providing internal oversight of custody and patrol operations and improving adherence to best law enforcement practices," according to a department job posting published earlier this year.

In an interview with LAist, Villanueva called the positions "a dog and pony show." The retired sheriff's lieutenant said they give "the appearance" of strong constitutional oversight, "but in actuality they never addressed the big systemic issues. They only addressed the low-hanging fruit."

Villanueva said the advisors were too focused on misconduct of deputies, ignoring misconduct by command staff.

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He said the "systemic issues" include "racial profiling," and "you had a lot of issues of deputies involved in criminal misconduct that was concealed for a long time."

Villanueva said he would use the money budgeted for the two advisors to fund a "truth and reconciliation commission" that would review potential wrongful convictions as well as possible wrongful terminations of deputies.

The union representing deputy sheriffs has strongly opposed the constitutional advisors on the grounds that they have far too much power over the disposition of investigations into deputy shootings, alleged excessive use of force and other misconduct. The union was a key backer of Villanueva's campaign, spending more than $1.3 million on his behalf.

Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the ACLU of Southern California, called the idea of eliminating the constitutional policing advisors "a troubling step in the wrong direction." While Villanueva said the advisors never addressed systemic issues, Bibring said they're needed to address those very issues.

"Reform at the sheriff's department is far from complete," he said, "and there [are] still serious, persistent problems, not only issues in the jails, but racial profiling along the I-5 corridor, issues around deputy gangs, and the issue around transparency and due process with the Brady list."

The Brady list refers to a list of 300 deputies whose credibility has been called into question because of past incidents of dishonesty. Sheriff McDonnell sought to turn the list over to the district attorney, a step one of the constitutional policing advisors had pushed him to take, according to a well-informed source in the sheriff's department. The deputies' union sued to block the move, an action Villanueva supported. The case is now pending before the California Supreme Court.

The deputies union was particularly angered by McDonnell's creation of the shooting analysis review committee, which was based partly on the advice of the constitutional policing advisors, according to the sheriff's department source. The committee analyzes deputies with multiple shootings and makes risk management recommendations about removing deputies from patrol duties.

Sergio Perez, who started his job as one of the two constitutional policing advisors just two weeks ago, said it doesn't make any sense to get rid of the positions.

"The question I would ask is, what is so threatening about the position of constitutional policing advisor?" he asked. "Why wouldn't you want an informed participant in that conversation that is going to be happening every day here at the sheriff's department?"

The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement awarded the other advisor, Diana Teran, its 2018 Contribution to Oversight Award in October for her "courageous and skilled work," according to an email to Teran from Cameron McEllhiney, the association's director of training and education.

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"You have been fearless in bringing a civilian perspective into the inner workings of the Sheriff's Department, giving the organization opportunities to improve that are not always present when agencies react to external criticism with internal echo chambers of positive reinforcement," wrote McEllhiney.

Villanueva currently leads McDonnell by nearly 87,000 votes, according to the latest update from the L.A. County Registrar. There are still about 260,000 votes left to count, but McDonnell would have to win about two-thirds of those votes to overtake Villanueva.

The sheriff issued a statement Tuesday saying he won't concede "until the ballot count has been completed.'' Noting that the "statistics appear to favor my opponent,'' McDonnell said he is prepared to reach out to Villanueva "to discuss an orderly transition, should that be necessary.''

Villanueva ran as a reformer who would clean out corruption at the top of the department, winning him the endorsement of the L.A. County Democratic Party.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Black Lives Matter endorsed Alex Villanueva. That is incorrect. LAist regrets the error.

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