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Criminal Justice

Alex Villanueva's Unlikely Rise To Power — 7 Takeaways From Our New Podcast About The Sheriff

A drawing of a man's mouth and jaw at the top, with the rest of the drawing taken up with a brown sheriff's uniform, with a dark tie, gold star with a blue circle on it over the man's chest, and a green patch with a star in the middle just below the man's shoulder. Superimposed on the uniform are the words Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff.
(Miranda Villanueva for LAist)
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When Alex Villanueva ran for Los Angeles County sheriff in 2018, he was a retired lieutenant with almost no command experience. He ran as a Democrat promising to reform the troubled department and went on to beat the incumbent, Jim McDonnell. But soon after Villanueva took office, things went off the rails.

LAist Studios’ new podcast, Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff, charts Villanueva’s unlikely rise to power and his controversial tenure. Episodes 1 and 2 are out now.

Here’s what we learned from making those episodes.

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1. The L.A. Sheriff’s Department has been plagued by the same problems as the LAPD

But the LAPD has gotten most of the media attention.

Listen to Episode 1 — A very strange press conference
Listen to Episode 2 — A shocking upset

One of the most infamous police violence scandals of the 20th century — the beating of a Black man, Rodney King, and the violent uprising that followed the acquittal of the white officers who did it — focused the nation’s attention on the Los Angeles Police Department.

But the Sheriff’s Department has long had similar problems. And it patrols a bigger area, including unincorporated L.A. County and 42 cities from Compton to Malibu. It also runs the county’s massive jail system.

A report issued in 1992— the same year L.A. erupted in outrage over the LAPD officers who beat King going free — found deeply disturbing evidence of excessive force and lax discipline of sheriff's deputies, and a “disinterest” on the part of the district attorney’s office in prosecuting bad deputies.

2. Alex Villanueva always saw himself as a reformer

Villanueva, who joined the department in 1986, was unimpressed with how then-Sheriff Sherman Block responded to the civil unrest following the beating of King. Villanueva ran for sheriff the next year, 1993, despite having less than 10 years of experience on the job. He withdrew from the race, but regularly clashed with his higher-ups as he sought to change things. It was Villanueva who first proposed a smoking ban inside the jails not long after he started working as a jail guard. A commander kicked him out of his office but Villanueva prevailed.

3. Villanueva was promoted to sergeant in 2000, then struggled to advance

In the early 2000s, Villanueva became convinced that a mostly white command staff was discriminating against him because he was Latino. He wrote an astonishing letter admonishing his superiors.

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He alsofiled a lawsuit alleging the lieutenants exam was rigged and that when he reported it to his superiors, they retaliated against him.

An investigation later found the answers were being given out and scores were being altered for favored candidates. Villanueva was promoted to lieutenant.

4. A jail violence scandal rocked the LASD and led to new leadership

In 2011, the FBI launched an undercover investigation at Men's Central Jail to investigate allegations of violence, corruption, and abuse of inmates. Much of the violence was carried out by two deputy gangs, the 2000 Boys and the 3000 Boys.

In 2013, the FBI arrested 12 sheriff’s deputies affiliated with the jail scandal. A few weeks later, Sheriff Baca resigned. He later went to prison, along with his undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was behind the exam-rigging that had kept Villanueva from being promoted.

Jim McDonnell, who'd led the Long Beach Police Dept. after a long career with the LAPD, beat Tanaka to become sheriff.

5. After still failing to get promoted, Villanueva retired and ran for sheriff

Villanueva, by then a lieutenant, was unimpressed with McDonnell. He said McDonnell was harsh on discipline, and passed him over for various promotions. So he quit, and in 2017, announced he was running against McDonnell for sheriff. He was widely considered a long shot.

6. Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants helped propel Villanueva to office

When Villanueva announced his campaign, the Trump administration was in the middle of a highly-publicized crackdown on undocumented immigrants. ICE agents were no longer solely targeting people with criminal records, and workplace sweeps were widespread.

Villanueva promised to get ICE out of county jails, impressing immigrant rights activists. His stance secured the endorsement of the powerful L.A. County Democratic Party. He also campaigned in Spanish, emphasizing his Puerto Rican background and promising he would be different from his predecessors.

7. As sheriff, Villanueva immediately rehired a deputy fired for being 'unfit'

Caren Carl Mandoyan had been fired by former Sheriff McDonnell for domestic violence against a fellow deputy and for lying about the allegations.

Mandoyan became close with Villanueva during the campaign, acting as his personal driver. Villanueva reinstated him just a few weeks after taking office, a decision that was investigated by the inspector general, Max Huntsman, and called into question by the Board of Supervisors.

Villanueva later opened a criminal investigation into Huntsman, which the inspector general viewed as retaliation.

Both Villanueva and members of the board told us the decision to re-hire Mandoyan was what created the rift in their relationship — a rift that was to deepen over time.

Subscribe to "Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff" wherever you get your podcasts to make sure don't any episodes.

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