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Criminal Justice

Another Challenger For Sheriff Villanueva: LAX Police Chief Cecil Rhambo

Cecil Rhambo in his LAX Police Chief uniform, looking off in the distance, with a police car behind him and the LA skyline in the far distance.
Cecil Rhambo
(Courtesy of the Rhambo campaign)
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Calling Sheriff Alex Villanueva “the Donald Trump of L.A. County,” LAX Police Chief Cecil Rhambo Monday announced he will challenge the incumbent in next year’s election. Before becoming airport chief in 2019, Rhambo spent 33 years with the Sheriff’s Department, rising to assistant sheriff.

Rhambo, 62, may be Villanueva’s toughest challenger yet, given his resume. He’s hired a veteran Democratic strategy firm to run his campaign.

Four other people have registered as candidates in what is expected to be a crowded field against the embattled Villanueva.

If elected, Rhambo would become L.A.’s first Black and first Korean American sheriff. He clearly intends to use his race and ethnicity during the campaign. “I’ve been a Black and Asian man long before I was a cop, so I know what it’s like to walk down the street as a person of color,” Rhambo said in his campaign launch video.

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The video starts with a series of news stories about deputy gangs inside the Sheriff’s Department. “I’m running to clean up the sheriff’s department. This time for good,” Rhambo said.

Rhambo slammed Villanueva in the video, saying he has “eroded public trust” and “used fear to consolidate power.” He also pointed to Villanueva’s effort to re-hire an ex-deputy accused of domestic violence and excessive force.

Villanueva won election in 2018 running as a progressive Democrat. Now he has shifted to the right, attacking advocates of criminal justice reform, particularly new L.A. District Attorney George Gascón, whose recall the sheriff supports. He has frequently clashed with the Board of Supervisors, the Civilian Oversight Commission, and the Inspector General over issues of oversight, transparency and reform.

In his video, Rhambo compared Villanueva to former Sheriff Lee Baca, who was convicted of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and lying in 2017. During Baca’s second trial, Rhambo testified he had unsuccessfully warned the sheriff not to interfere with an FBI investigation into jail violence. “I thought it was getting a little bit outrageous,” he told the jury.

Rhambo’s roots run deep in the department. A photo with fellow deputies from the 1990s shows him posing with Paul Tanaka, who would rise to the rank of undersheriff and be convicted along with Baca.

Rhambo and Tanaka served together in the highest echelons under Baca.

In an interview, Rhambo told us he was born in South Korea to an American serviceman father and a Korean mother. He said he spent his first year in an orphanage; when he was 1, he was adopted by a family in Compton.

In a news release announcing his candidacy, Rhambo touted his experience with the Internal Affairs Bureau investigating excessive use of force, his leadership with the Asian Crime Task Force, and the reduction of crime when he was captain of the Compton station.

After retiring from the department in 2014, ​​Rhambo served as assistant city manager of Carson from 2014-17, and as city manager of Compton from 2017-19.

The other four candidates running for sheriff are Sheriff’s Chief Eli Vera, Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Strong, Enrique Del Real, and April Saucedo Hood.

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