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Criminal Justice

What Is LA Sheriff Villanueva Doing in Venice Beach?

Sheriff Alex Villanueva is wearing a cowboy hat talking on the Venice Boardwalk about his plan to clear the area of homeless people.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva during his June 7 visit to the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
(Via Alex Villanueva's Twitter)
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When L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva arrived in Venice earlier this month in a cowboy hat promising to clear its famous boardwalk of homeless people, he seemed to surprise just about everybody. After all, Venice is the LAPD’s jurisdiction.

Chief Michel Moore was among those caught off guard.

“I did not invite the sheriff into Venice Beach,” Moore told our newsroom. So he called his counterpart the day after his visit. “I asked him, ‘How can we work together? I want to talk to you as chief-to-sheriff.’”

Moore did not condemn Villanueva. After all, the sheriff has the authority to enforce laws anywhere in the county.

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And in Venice, he is able to do what Moore cannot. As COVID-19 hit last year, the city council imposed a moratorium on the removal of tents housing homeless people during daytime hours. The idea was to limit the spread of the virus. That’s meant the LAPD has had a hands-off approach to encampments across the city. (The clearing of tents at Echo Park Lake was conducted ostensibly to conduct renovations to the area.)

Moore thinks the city council should lift the moratorium now that the pandemic is waning, but so far the council has kept it in place.

Enter Villanueva.

The sheriff says politicians have “handcuffed” the LAPD and that he had no choice but to deploy to Venice. “We’re taking action,” he said on his June 9 weekly Facebook live chat.

‘I Don’t Go To The Beach Anymore’

Second to Skid Row, Venice has the largest concentration of homeless people in L.A. County. In part because of the moratorium on tent removals, an estimated 2,000 unhoused people now live there.

The boardwalk along the beach is packed with at least 130 tents and an estimated 250 people, according to neighborhood council member Brian Averill. Some people are down on their luck or mentally ill — but others are desperate drug addicts or dangerous criminals, said Averill, a professional photographer who has lived in Venice for 20 years.

A homeless camp at Venice Beach.
(PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

“I don’t go to the beach and boardwalk anymore,” he said. “We need to treat this almost as if there has been a natural disaster.”

Robberies in the area jumped 46% and aggravated assaults went up 43% ast year, compared with 2019, according to the LAPD.

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Villanueva says he went to Venice on a “humanitarian” mission. “We’re here to figure out how we can help people get on their feet, get the help and move on,” he said on Facebook.

‘We’re Coming For You’

The sheriff has dispatched his Homeless Services Outreach Team and some of his Mental Evaluation Teams. As many as 16 deputies working with up to six clinicians have been on the Boardwalk. The department says so far it has found temporary shelter for six people.

Social service agencies have been working in Venice for years, including the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, St. Joseph Center, People Assisting the Homeless and Safe Place for Youth.

Villanueva has taken a different approach from those groups by issuing an ultimatum: accept services, leave, or be arrested by July 4. He’s targeted people from out of state, whom he claims make up a “large” part of the population.

“We’re coming for you,” he said on his June 9 chat. “You do not belong here in L.A. County … you need to pack up your bags and head back to the state you came from.”

In fact, the latest survey of unhoused people found 80% have lived in L.A. for at least five years.

‘Criminalization Does Not Work’

The homeless population in Venice — like in the rest of the city — is diverse. It includes people who are drug addicts, people who are mentally ill, people who are suffering economic hardship, single moms who just need a place to stay, and people who prefer to live outside.

“Criminalization does not work,” said Carol Sobel, a civil rights lawyer and homeless advocate. People who are arrested spend a short time in jail, are released, and end up somewhere else in the city with a monetary fine they can’t pay, she said. “We are just shuffling people around.”

Averill agrees.

“It’s easy to move people off the beach and off the boardwalk,” he said. “But you have to think a few steps ahead and ask yourself where those people are going to go?”

“Here comes a guy with a cowboy hat to the rescue to show that things can be done — even though he actually doesn’t do much. But symbolically it really has a tremendous amount of appeal.”
— Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount's Center for the Study of Los Angeles

“I see this move as just moving people to another block in Venice,” he said of the sheriff’s arrival.

Villanueva already has created jail space for homeless people arrested in Venice, according to Moore. And while the chief thinks services should always be offered first, he is not necessarily opposed to the sheriff’s tough talk.

“The fact that he does threaten that he will make arrests will be a motivator for some individuals to take options that they may otherwise not take,” Moore said.

Temporary shelters are currently available, according to Sobel. But many are incapable of addressing the complex challenges people face.

‘A Guy With A Cowboy Hat To The Rescue’

Villanueva’s foray into Venice comes as he faces what’s expected to be a tough reelection campaign next year. The L.A. County Democratic Party, which played a big role in getting the sheriff into office, has called on him to resign. The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents rank-and-file deputies, has yet to say whether it will back Villanueva again in 2022.

Brian Averill, who’s running for neighborhood council president, expressed concern about the sheriff’s motives. “I just don’t want this to turn into a media circus of political grandstanding,” he said. “There is a neighborhood in crisis and there are people who desperately need help out there.”

But the sheriff’s promise to tackle homelessness in one of L.A.’s most visible neighborhoods could help his public image, said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

“Here comes a guy with a cowboy hat to the rescue to show that things can be done — even though he actually doesn’t do much,” Guerra said. “But symbolically it really has a tremendous amount of appeal.”

“It’s an image that might work well in a reelection campaign ad,” he said.

In traveling to Venice, the sheriff has sharply criticized two people in particular. One is City Councilman Mike Bonin, a leading proponent of reducing funding for the LAPD and someone the union that represents rank-and-file police officers wants out of office. The second is Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who has called on Villanueva to resign.

“The point is, Mike, if you did your job, I would never be in Venice,” the sheriff said on his Facebook chat. “The same thing goes for the district supervisor Sheila Kuehl — it’s her district.”

‘Everybody Is Fed Up’

Villanueva is tapping into growing frustration over the homelessness crisis in L.A.

City Councilman Joe Buscaino sought to do the same when he announced his campaign for mayor in Venice last month. Buscaino is a former LAPD officer who is currently a reserve officer.

“Everybody is fed up,” said Averill, noting people in Venice rarely agree on anything. “The level of vitriol is unlike anything I’ve ever seen here. And it’s sad.”

“It’s at a boiling point now,” he said. Averill also noted that tourists will soon start flocking back to the seaside community, and predicted that will result in clashes with homeless people.

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