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Criminal Justice

Long Beach Police Chief Luna Jumps Into Crowded Race For LA Sheriff

A man in a dark suit and blue tie smiles for the camera. Behind him we see a park and some sort of public monument.
Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna at Hilltop Park in Signal Hill, where he announced his candidacy for L.A. Sheriff.
(Frank Stoltze / LAist
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Casting himself as a reformer, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna Wednesday announced he’ll join five others who are seeking to oust L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva in next year’s election.

At a news conference at Signal Hill’s Hilltop Park, Luna said Villanueva "has created dysfunction and chaos, which has put our public safety at risk. We can do much better.”

Luna, 55, touted his seven years running the Long Beach Police Department and his status as the only “outsider” in the race as two of his chief qualifications. The only candidate who has never worked for the Sheriff’s Department, he has spent his entire law enforcement career in Long Beach.

Luna, who announced in September that he's retiring as Long Beach chief at the end of this year, offered a five-point plan to improve the department. Without offering any details, he vowed to restore trust, implement reform, reduce violent crime, address homelessness, and improve deputy wellness.

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A Vow To ‘Change The Culture’ On Deputy Subgroups

Asked if he believes there are deputy subgroups or gangs inside the department, Luna said yes and that he intends to “change the culture” at the agency to rid it of them.

He described himself as a problem solver who has been able to work with Long Beach leaders to improve policing, “something our current sheriff has shown he is incapable of doing.”

In contrast with Villanueva, Luna promised to comply with subpoenas issued by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and the county’s Inspector General.

And while Villanueva has refused to enforce the county's vaccination mandate with his staff, Luna said he supports the mandate and would enforce it.

Luna grew up in East L.A. in a “poor Latino immigrant family,” he said. The Sheriff’s Department patrolled the neighborhood. “I saw examples of both good and bad policing,” he said, “which inspired me to become an officer and shaped my philosophy on relationship-based policing — specifically in communities of color."

About a half dozen Black Lives Matter protesters stood behind Luna as he spoke, holding signs and periodically chanting. “Don’t let Luna fail up,” read one sign.

They faulted Luna for seeking to increase the police budget instead of diverting resources to mental health and other social workers. “His police department sucks up 44% of the budget,” said protester Audrena Redmond.

Luna appeared unruffled, saying he's “open to dialogue with anyone.”

Villanueva, who’s seeking a second four-year term, said on Wednesday that Luna’s entrance into the already-crowded race demonstrates “that the political establishment wants a puppet sheriff and they have a casting call for as many applicants as possible to be the next puppet sheriff.”

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Luna has hired Bill Carrick, one California’s top campaign strategists, to help with his bid to unseat the sheriff. Carrick has worked for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and former L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn, among many others.

A Long Policing Career In Long Beach

Luna’s career in Long Beach law enforcement spans 36 years. He began as a reserve officer in 1985 before entering the police academy in 1987, according to the department’s website. Luna’s official biography says he was promoted through every rank in the department before being sworn in as chief in Nov. 2014.

He has a master’s degree in Public Administration from Cal State Long Beach.

When Luna announced he was retiring as Long Beach chief, top city officials praised him, with City Manager Tom Modica calling Luna “the truest example of a public servant.”

Some criticized Luna for his handling of a May 31, 2020 protest against the murder of George Floyd that saw people break into dozens of businesses, according to the Long Beach Post.

Nine days later, Luna banned the use of the carotid restraint, which had come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of Floyd’s killing. Most law enforcement agencies in the state had already stopped using it, and the Long Beach Post reported that between 2016 and 2019, the city’s police used the hold to subdue — which sometimes caused injury — more than any other large police agency in the state.

As with many law enforcement departments, there has been resistance to vaccination among Long Beach police — only 57% of its officers were vaccinated as of October, according to the Post.

Eight people have declared their intention to challenge Villanueva. Besides Luna, retired L.A. Sheriff’s Capt. Matt Rodriguez, former assistant sheriff and current LAX Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, Sheriff’s Chief Eli Vera, Sheriff’s Capt. Britta Steinbrenner and Sheriff's Lt. Eric Strong have publicly launched their campaigns. Enrique Del Real and April Saucedo Hood have filed candidate paperwork with the Registrar of Voters, but have not formally begun campaigning.

What questions or concerns do you have about civics and democracy in Southern California?
Frank Stoltze explores who has power and how they use it at a time when our democratic systems have been under threat.

Corrected December 1, 2021 at 5:09 PM PST
A previous version of this story erroneously said Bill Carrick worked for Jimmy Carter.
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