‘Who The Heck Is Robert Luna?’ Here’s What We Know About The Candidate For Sheriff
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has conceded to Robert Luna and offered well wishes to the incoming sheriff.
“Who the heck is Robert Luna?”
I saw that sentiment echoing across Twitter, heard it from friends, and even people within my own news organization as the dust settled after Tuesday’s rousing primary victory for the former Long Beach Police Department chief.
“That’s an extremely fair question,” the 36-year-veteran law enforcement official told me over a Zoom call on Thursday.
Luna did not claim to be the most well-known, or most progressive, candidate, in the primary race to lead the largest sheriff’s department in the nation. But the former teenage reserve officer who rose through the ranks to lead the second largest municipal police department in L.A. County is planting himself left of incumbent Alex Villanueva, who opponents have described as an authoritarian sheriff beset by scandals and defiant in the face of oversight.
On Tuesday, Luna, who grew up in East L.A., watched his favorable primary results with family and friends in his backyard in Long Beach, while Villanueva hosted a watch party in Luna’s childhood stomping grounds.
“I believe that the voters of L.A. County have spoken loudly and clearly that there needs to be change,” Luna told us on election night shortly after ballot returns showed him with roughly 25% of the vote.
“They're tired of a sheriff who doesn't collaborate, who makes excuses, who blames everybody else for the challenges that we face together,” he said.
“I was with him his entire tenure as [LBPD] chief,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia told me on Thursday. “He is beyond just an excellent administrator and excellent leader, he’s just a really good person.”
Support for Luna
Luna’s already garnered support from two former challengers, Cecil Rhambo and April Saucedo Hood.
In a Twitter thread, Rhambo encouraged his supporters to unite around Luna “so that we can put an end to the corrupt tenure of Alex Villanueva.”
In a statement to LAist, Saucedo Hood said Luna’s “outside experience and perspective will begin the process of restoring public trust” in the department.
He also earned the endorsement of the L.A. Times. “Luna may well be the department’s last best chance,” its editorial board wrote.
So what change does Luna represent?
The fact that he was the only candidate in the eight-person primary field with no ties to the sheriff’s department may have helped him get one step closer to it. (Jim McDonell, who was defeated by Villanueva four years ago to become the rare sitting sheriff to lose an election, was Luna's predecessor as Long Beach police chief.)
"Voters who wanted a real alternative had one candidate,” said Jody Armour, a professor of law and constitutional law scholar at USC.
“[H]e will get rid of deputy gangs, he’s not from the system, and wants to work WITH Board of Supervisors,” said Eagle Rock resident Donna Choi, who voted for Luna, in a direct message on Twitter.
Villanueva, in contrast, has repeatedly denied the existence of deputy gangs, defied requests from the Board of Supervisors for information about his department, and ignored multiple subpoenas by the county’s sheriff’s watchdog commission.
At LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s watch party last night, I asked him to comment on the hearings on deputy gangs by the sheriff’s oversight body.— Emily Elena Dugdale (she/her) (@eedugdale) June 8, 2022
He said he hasn’t had “one single person” offer evidence of gangs, and disregarded hearing testimony. #Election2022 @LAist pic.twitter.com/Im5q34dBFU
Choi called the department under Villanueva “a mess,” and said she’d researched Luna’s record before voting for him in the primary.
“People may not know who Chief Luna is yet, but he should win because people are so fed up with the way things are in the department now,” she said.
“In contrast to the incumbent, [he] will not be pointing fingers at people, and blaming other people for the problems that seem to be existing within the department and in the community,” said Victor Manolo, the former mayor of Artesia and a supporter of Luna who posted photos on Instagram of campaign signs for Luna that he placed around his community.
Born to a Sinaolan immigrant father and a Modesto-born mother with roots in Michoacán, Luna said his family’s negative experience growing up in an area patrolled by the sheriff’s department steered him into wanting to reform law enforcement.
“I dreamt of being a police officer from a very early age,” he said. “I had a lot of experiences I never forgot.”
He was appointed LBPD chief in 2014. “The community is our greatest asset,” he said at the news conference announcing his position.
Over his seven-year tenure at the top of LBPD, Luna brought in body-worn cameras and implemented an early-warning system to identify problem officers. He started an office of constitutional policing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. He told us he had reduced police shootings by department officers by 50% between 2015 and 2020.
Over the years, Luna won praise and awards from some Long Beach organizations including the NAACP. He also drew ire from others; when he announced his candidacy for sheriff last December, he was met with protestors.
Luna stated that although he doesn’t agree with all of his policies, he does not support the recall effortagainst Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, a move that has drawn criticism from some tough-on-crime Angelenos who instead flocked to Villanueva.
The sheriff disparaged Gascón as recently as Tuesday night. After it was announced that San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was successfully recalled, Villanueva took the stage at his watch party in East L.A.
“George Gascón — you’re next,” he said, to cheering and howls from his supporters.
“This is not a popularity contest,” said Marcus “Goodie” Goodloe, a diversity and leadership consultant who has worked with law enforcement departments in the South Bay, and voted for Luna in the primary.
“This is about temperament, leadership, principle. The current state of affairs with regards to the department is not indicative of what we want to see in our county,” he said.
Under Luna, LBPD committed to partner with USC’s Law Enforcement Work Inquiry System (LEWIS) Registry, a database that documents police officer misconduct. As of June, LBPD had not released data to the project, according to a department spokesperson.
A “180-degree” difference
Luna told me he was a “180-degree difference” from Villanueva.
“I'm focused on collaboration, focused on partnerships, focused on how to reduce crime, but at the same time, increase public trust,” Luna said.
Under his leadership, Luna said violent crime decreased in Long Beach by over 6%.
Crime rates in L.A. County are much lower than their peak in the 1990s, despite misinformation perpetuated by some local law enforcement agencies that presents a different picture.
“People don’t want to see their elected officials fighting on television, calling each other names. That is not what we are elected for,” Luna said, remarking on Villanueva’s combative history with the Board of Supervisors and Inspector General Max Huntsman.
Last April, in a baseless claim, Villanueva called Huntsman a Holocaust denier.
Luna said he’s committed to work with the Board of Supervisors and the sheriff’s oversight agencies. He recognizes deputy gangs as a legitimate problem within the department.
“I will not only get rid of gangs within the Sheriff’s Department, I will also change LASD’s culture to ensure that gangs do not resurface in the future,” he wrote in LAist’s sheriff’s candidate questionnaire.
While maintaining that there are “amazing people,” at the department, Luna acknowledged on Thursday that the culture has taken a nosedive over the last several years, and is “unacceptable.”
“The employees have to see that the person in charge respects the rule of law, that does follow and works with people and respects our community,” he said. “That’s how you start changing it.”
If elected, Luna will oversee a department with approximately 18,000 employees and a $3 billion budget.
“You could make a real impact — the question is, does he have that commitment?” said USC law professor Armour.
Armour belongs to a group called the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, composed of academics and law enforcement professionals moving towards criminal justice reform.
“We don’t have to have police respond to traffic violations,” or mental health crises, he said, adding that Luna could come in with “a different set of values.”
Villanueva’s erratic behavior likely made unsavory headlines more than any other law enforcement leader in the region, but Luna is not without his own baggage.
While he was LBPD chief, his department was scrutinized for usinga self-deleting text service called TigerText, and conducting lewd conduct sting operations that targeted gay men, which a judge condemned in 2016. Luna maintains he did not know the operations were happening.
Earlier this month, a Long Beach city commission recommended a ban on some police surveillance technology, including facial recognition software, which came under fire from the ACLU and concerned community members while Luna was chief.
During the 2020 protests in downtown Long Beach over the murder of George Floyd, LPBD officers responded aggressively to demonstrators. One shot reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez with a foam projectile while he was on assignment for LAist and KPCC. The department concluded that the shooting was within policy.
As our investigative reporter Aaron Mendelson reported at the time; “At full speed, the projectile can travel at 325 feet per second. While less deadly than firearms, weapons such as rubber bullets, pepper spray balls, foam launchers and bean bag rounds maim and even kill.”
“I was really disappointed in his deputies, & officer's behavior during protests,” said Long Beach local Michelle Burgo-Brigham in a direct message on Twitter.
She referenced then-LBPD officer Officer Jacob Delgado, who during the Floyd protests posted a photo of himself on Instagramholding his baton above a bloodied floor. According to Buzzfeed, the officer's siblingreposted the photo on his own Instagram account and added the caption, "Bro getting his.”
Delgado was fired after a short internal investigation.
“I can't believe a person like that passed background checks, and mental wellness checks to become an officer,” Burgo-Brigham wrote. “I [didn’t] feel safe or protected in my city while Luna was in charge.” She said she wouldn’t vote for either Villanueva or Luna.
In response, Luna said he didn’t think Burgo-Brighman’s statement was a “true reflection” of how people feel.
But when Luna announced his candidacy for sheriff last year, protestors including activists with Black Lives Matter Long Beachstood behind him and shouted “Shame,” holding up posters emblazoned with the names of police shooting victims.
“Don’t let Luna fail up,” one sign read as Luna took the mic.
Days after his announcement, Long Beach police officers Dedier Reyes and David Salcedo were arrested on suspicion of filing false reports.
Luna said he doesn’t deny that things didn’t always go smoothly. “When you are the police chief of a large city, you are going to face adversity,” he said. “Things aren’t always going to go well.”
He said as chief he stepped up and addressed conflicts head on; some of his critics who showed up to protest said he ignored community concerns.
“We hire from the human race; we sometimes make mistakes,” he said. “I am open to change, ready to pivot, as [I] listen to what the community is telling us.”
He pledged to sit down with his critics, including Black Lives Matter, “100 percent.”
“I want to be at the table,” he said.
“I have been a 21st century chief. I intend to be a 21st century sheriff.”
Frank Stoltze contributed to this reporting.