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Criminal Justice

A Look Back At Outgoing LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva's Tumultuous 4 Years

A close up head shot of Alex Villanueva
Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
( Kyle Grillot for LAist)
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On Saturday, Robert Luna will be sworn in as Los Angeles County Sheriff, ending the tenure of outgoing Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

  • Civics & Democracy Correspondent Frank Stoltze is host of LAist Studios’ podcast, Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff.

  • It examines Villanueva’s unlikely rise to power, how his support collapsed, and issues including deputy gangs and allegations of harassment of families who had relatives killed by deputies.

It's hard to remember now, but there was a lot of hope surrounding Villanueva’s election four years ago. He was a Spanish-speaking Democrat who promised to be a progressive reformer at an agency with a lot of problems.

Key to his victory was his commitment to kick federal immigration officers out of the Twin Towers jail, where agents nabbed nearly 1,000 people a year as they were headed out the door. It was 2018. Then-President Trump was vowing to carry out mass deportations. Villanueva’s message resonated in Los Angeles, a city with so many immigrant families; his promise won him the endorsement of the county Democratic Party.

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The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs was excited about Villanueva too. The deputies’ union (ALADS) spent $1.5 million to oust his predecessor Jim McDonnell, who had imposed tougher discipline guidelines in the wake of a jail brutality scandal that sent former Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff to federal prison. Villanueva had pitched a different kind of reform to ALADS: rolling back those discipline guidelines.

The Mandoyan Affair

Villanueva showed his true colors almost immediately after taking office by rehiring Caren Carl Mandoyan, his friend and personal driver during the campaign. McDonnell had fired Mandoyan over allegations of domestic violence and lying to investigators.

In some ways, the Mandoyan affair is all you need to know about Villanueva.

A former top sheriff’s official testified under oath that Villanueva tried to persuade her to rehire Mandoyan days before he took office — so it would look like McDonnell brought Mandoyan back. Under scrutiny from domestic violence groups and others, Villanueva set up a sham “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to review Mandoyan’s firing and rubber stamped his decision.

Villanueva argued Mandoyan got a raw deal from McDonnell — that he was innocent. To a lot of people it looked like the same kind of department cronyism Villanueva claimed to abhor.

What happened next became his pattern. When the Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit claiming Villanueva had violated civil service rules by rehiring Mandoyan, he said it was political payback because they did not support him during his campaign. It sometimes seemed like anyone who disagreed with Villanueva was a political enemy, not someone who simply had a different point of view.

In this case, a judge agreed with the supervisors. VIllanueva’s response: he suggested the judge was in bed with the board.

Combining Hubris With Paranoia

Villanueva combined hubris with paranoia. He rarely took responsibility for his actions. And sometimes he failed to carry out the duties of his office.

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When told by the Board of Supervisors that he needed to manage his budget better, Villanueva demanded they write him a bigger check. When the county imposed a vaccine mandate on all employees, Villanueva refused to enforce it on his deputies. He concocted an argument that the company contracted by the county would give deputies’ personal information to the Chinese government.

Villanueva called himself “an honest man in a den of thieves” and created a Civil Rights and Public Integrity Detail that opened investigations into critics, including county Inspector General Max Huntsman, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, and Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission member Patti Giggans. It was clearly a conflict of interest to aim the resources of the largest Sheriff’s Department in the country at people who oversaw it.

It looked a lot like intimidation.

There’s always been tension between law enforcement leaders and reporters. Villanueva took it to a new level when he announced a criminal investigation into L.A. Times reporter Alene Tcheckmedyian over a leaked video. After a firestorm of criticism, he backed down.

One of any sheriff’s most important relationships is with the district attorney, who prosecutes the people deputies arrest. But Villanueva was more interested in making a political statement against the reformist policies of DA George Gascón. In an unprecedented move, he endorsed the effort to recall Gascón.

During weekly Instagram and Facebook Live sessions, Villanueva regularly lambasted Gascón, the Board of Supervisors, the Civilian Oversight Commission, the Inspector General, and the news media.

His Deputies Loved Him

Villanueva liked to grandstand. He sent deputies into LAPD territory in Venice to move unhoused people off of the boardwalk. By most accounts they moved a few blocks inland. He boasted he could move the entire population of more than 70,000 houseless people off the streets and get them help in 90 days.

I am not sure anybody took him seriously.

Villanueva gets some credit for moving ICE out of the jails and equipping deputies with body-worn cameras. But it didn't happen without considerable pressure from community groups like Check the Sheriff and the Board of Supervisors. And often any accomplishments were overshadowed by his blustery attacks on “a corrupt political establishment” and his mocking of any reforms in an environment where people want a different kind of policing.

Villanueva’s approach to being sheriff made him a star in the constellation that makes up the American right-wing firmament — he is now a favorite of Fox News.

His deputies loved him. They saw a leader standing up to powers they saw as anti-law enforcement and protecting their interests. But supervisors were reluctant to fund Villanueva’s initiatives, given his mismanagement and what some considered to be his corruption. So deputies in the end suffered.

A grand jury is examining allegations that Villanueva tried to cover up a video of a deputy with his knee on the back of a handcuffed man’s neck for three minutes. He denies it.

Additional Investigations

It's not the only investigation under way. Halfway into Villanueva’s term, the California Attorney General’s office announced it was investigating allegations of a pattern of deputy misconduct, including excessive use of force. The FBI has opened an investigation into the fatal shooting of Andres Guardado. The agency has also opened an investigation into deputy subgroups, or gangs.

Villanueva’s tenure was so bad that voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment that gives the Board of Supervisors the power to remove an elected sheriff for certain types of misconduct.

Many of the department’s problems preceded Villanueva. And he would constantly remind you of that, when he wasn’t downplaying them. During his concession speech, I witnessed him admonishing a reporter to read a 600-page department report that explained how he was correct to try to rehire Mandoyan.

There was that name again.

Civics & Democracy Correspondent Frank Stoltze is host of LAist Studios’ podcast, “Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff.”

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