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Criminal Justice

ACLU, Activists Want County Supes To Have Power To Remove Sheriffs

Sheriff Alex Villanueva. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)
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The ACLU of Southern California, Black Lives Matter-L.A. and other groups are asking the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to create a way to remove an elected sheriff from office.

The move comes amid allegations Sheriff Alex Villanueva has abused his power by resisting oversight, launching investigations of government watchdogs and political opponents and failing to rid his department of violent deputy subgroups.

The groups say their proposal is aimed at Villanueva if he’s reelected in November, as well as future sheriffs who commit “serious violations of the public trust, including serious crimes, unconstitutional conduct, and abuse of power,” according to a statement.

Under the organizations’ proposal, a sheriff would be subject to removal by a vote of four of the five supervisors.

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“The board would not be able to just remove the sheriff willy-nilly,” ACLU attorney Andrés Kwon said at a Monday news conference. The aim is “to shift the balance of power away from the paramilitary office of the sheriff and toward the civilian elected representatives of our county, which is the Board of Supervisors,” he said.

‘A Mistake’

Two of the five supervisors immediately dismissed the idea.

“I still believe that the power to remove an elected official from office needs to stay in the hands of voters,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement. “There is clearly a lot of frustration with this Sheriff and in the upcoming election voters are going to have the opportunity to decide whether he stays in office.”

Joining Hahn in opposition was Supervisor Kathryn Barger. “Placing the Board of Supervisors in an intermediary position to impeach a Sheriff elected by the public is a mistake,” she said in a statement. “Supporting a charter amendment boils down to taking power away from the public.”

Supervisor Hilda Solis declined to comment. Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly Mitchell did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

The board considered creating a way to remove Villanueva in 2020, but decided against it.

The sheriff, who faces six challengers in his reelection bid, also did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Sheriff's Lt. Eric Strong, one of Villanueva's challengers, endorsed the call for the charter change. "Unlike the incumbent, I believe that no sheriff should oppose or resist accountability and oversight," he said in a tweet.

The National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, Centro CSO, and Check The Sheriff joined in the call for the charter change.

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The groups said any proposed change to the charter should also include language giving supervisors the power to enact policies at the Sheriff’s Department “that do not interfere with the statutory authority of the sheriff.” The board already has this authority under government code and state court rulings but never uses it, argued Kwon.

The board decides how much money to allocate to the sheriff each year, but does not control how they spend it. Past boards have been reluctant to reduce the sheriff’s budget for fear of cuts in law enforcement services to their district.

Recalls And Prosecutions

Under the state constitution, sheriffs have broad powers and can only be removed by voters either during a regular election or recall election. Kwon said voters should not have to wait until a regular election to get rid of a bad sheriff, and maintained that recalls are nearly impossible. In L.A. County, you must collect around 600,000 voter signatures to get a recall on the ballot.

The California Attorney General has “direct supervision” of sheriffs but not the ability to remove them. In Jan. 2021, the attorney general’s office launched “a pattern or practice investigation … aimed at identifying and addressing potential systemic violations of the rights of the people of L.A. County.” That investigation is ongoing.

Former Sheriff Lee Baca abruptly resigned in 2014 amid a federal investigation into brutality and corruption in his department. He was later indicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

But such prosecutions are highly unusual.

In the wake of the prosecution of Baca, his undersheriff, and more than a dozen other sheriff’s officials, there were moves to create more oversight of the department. The Board of Supervisors created the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and Office of Inspector General. Voters later gave the commission subpoena power over the sheriff. The state legislature gave the same power to the inspector general.

In Oct. 2020, the oversight panel called on Villanueva to resign.

Members of five families whose loved ones were fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies led off Monday’s news conference.

“This is going to continue to happen if we don’t step up now and put something in place so that the people that are in a position to oversee the Sheriff’s Department are capable of doing that,” said Stephanie Luna, whose nephew Anthony Vargas was killed by deputies in East L.A. in 2018.

“That’s where the problem is,” she said. “There are people in positions of power and they’re capable of holding Villanueva accountable.”

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