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Criminal Justice

New Challenger To Sheriff Villanueva Promises To Root Out 'Deputy Gangs'

LA Sheriff candidate Eric Strong stands at a microphone wearing a blue suit with a white shirt and blue tie with tiny white dots. Three people stand to the left; on the far left is a woman with long auburn-red hair wearing a black face mask, in the middle is a man wearing a blue suit, light blue shirt and grey tie, wearing a light blue face mask, holding an orange sign that says Eric Strong, Los Angeles County Sheriff. The word "Eric" is in black and the rest of the words are in white. Above his head, someone's hand is holding the same sign. On the right is a man wearing a dark suit and shirt who is also holding an Eric Strong sign, but only the "Los A" portion is visible.
Eric Strong at Monday's press conference formally launching his campaign for L.A. County Sheriff.
(Frank Stoltze
/
LAist)
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L.A. Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Strong, a nearly 30-year veteran of law enforcement, announced today that he will challenge embattled Sheriff Alex Villanueva in next year’s election. If successful, he would become the county's first Black sheriff.

Strong joins a field of challengers that includes a sheriff's chief and the chief of the LAX police.

He said ridding the department of deputy “gangs” would be a top priority.

“The leadership of this department is unwilling to even acknowledge the existence of gangs in our ranks, and that has left the community’s trust in the Sheriff’s Department in tatters,” Strong told a news conference outside the sheriff’s headquarters at the Hall of Justice.

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“There are so many good deputies in this department that are doing the right thing day in and day out,” he said, adding, “they need to know they can speak up” against deputy cliques.

Strong did not provide specifics on how he would address the groups, which a Loyola Law School report said “foster a culture of violence” at the department.

One high profile lawsuit by eight deputies accuses colleagues at the East L.A. station of belonging to a clique called that Banditos that beats up rival deputies and engages in misconduct on the streets — including evidence-planting and brutality.

Villanueva mostly has downplayed what he calls "social groups," referring to any bad behavior as "hazing run amok." In 2020, he issued a policy banning groups that violate the rights of others but has said membership in them alone is not enough to trigger an investigation.

'I've Been Racially Profiled'

Strong said that growing up, he “personally experienced” law enforcement abuses. “I’ve been racially profiled, I’ve been roughed up by police, I’ve been stopped and pulled over when I know unequivocally that I had not committed any violation,” he said.

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Strong said he had one cousin who was killed by law enforcement and another who was murdered.

“It’s these experiences that motivate me,” he said.

Strong, 51, grew up in Carson, was a U.S. Marine, and graduated from USC. He joined the Compton Police Department in 1993, where he was a member of the SWAT team. He became a sheriff’s deputy when the department absorbed the Compton force. Strong, whose wife is also a sheriff’s lieutenant, is a board member of Police Against Racism.

Like Villanueva before he was elected, Strong has no command experience.

"It's not the rank, it's the person," Strong said.

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He said Villanueva’s highest position was as a watch commander at a patrol station, while he has served in key positions in risk management and auditing, and has overseen high profile internal affairs investigations.

It’s not the rank, it’s the person.
— Eric Strong, on his lack of command experience in the Sheriff's Department.

Strong “has extensive experience getting bad officers off the streets,” according to a press release.

He promised to expedite the rollout of body cameras, which have been deployed to about 25% of the department’s stations, and to take a more compassionate approach to homelessness. Strong said he would work to divert homeless people from jail and stop “shuffling them from neighborhood to neighborhood.”

Homelessness is sure to be a big issue in next year’s campaign.

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This summer, Villanueva personally visited homeless encampments in Venice, which is LAPD territory. He then dispatched his homeless outreach team to coax people into accepting services but also threatened to arrest anyone who refused.

'I Saw Confusion...Somebody That Wasn’t Willing To Listen'

In another effort to distinguish himself from the sheriff, Strong said he would work cooperatively with the Board of Supervisors and other county leaders. Villanueva has a notoriously bad relationship with the board, Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, and the county inspector general.

In an interview, Strong told us he first met Villanueva 16 years ago, when Villanueva was his supervising sergeant in a youth program. “I saw confusion. I saw somebody that felt like they had all the answers — but didn’t. I saw somebody that wasn’t willing to listen” — the same qualities he sees in him as sheriff, Strong said.

Asked if he supported the recall of DA George Gascon, who is widely criticized by law enforcement leaders as being too soft on criminals, Strong declined to answer. He said he would work with him “in the spirit of cooperation and in the spirit of collaboration.”

Villanueva is a loud supporter of the DA’s ouster.

Strong joins six other challengers to the sheriff, including former Assistant Sheriff and current LAX Police Chief Cecil Rhambo and Sheriff’s Chief Alex Vera. Enrique Del Real, Britta Steinbrenner, Matthew Rodriquez, and April Saucedo Hood also have filed candidate paperwork with the Registrar of Voters.

What questions do you have about criminal justice and public safety in Southern California?
Frank Stoltze covers a new movement for criminal justice reform at a time when not everybody shares the same vision.