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Alex Villanueva Is The New Sheriff Of LA County. Here's Why He's Known As A Maverick

Newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was sworn in Monday, Dec. 3.
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Alex Villanueva has been sworn in as Los Angeles County's 33rd sheriff. He replaces now-former Sheriff Jim McDonnell, whom he defeated in a surprise upset in the November election.

The swearing-in ceremony is being streamed live on Facebook, with L.A. County's Board of Supervisors, former state Sen. Kevin de León and other local politicians in attendance.

Villanueva, 55, spoke from the podium after taking the oath of office, promising to "empower communities of color" and focus on community-based policing. He pledged deputies will work for the communities and not the "powers that be."

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"Those days are over," he said.

Villanueva will be in charge of the largest sheriff's department in the nation, with nearly 10,000 deputies and 8,500 civilian personnel. It's a crowning achievement in a career that has often seen Villanueva take on daunting challenges.

When he joined the L.A. County Sheriff's Department in 1986, his first assignment -- like that of every new deputy -- was as a jail guard.

Before long, he demonstrated that he wasn't your typical deputy. He started pushing for a ban on smoking in all county jails, arguing that second hand smoke was bad for inmates and staff.

"The smoke was so thick in there, you could hardly see in front of you," he quipped dryly.

Villanueva's idea was not universally embraced. Many inmates and deputies smoked, and some deputies feared jail violence would spike if inmates didn't get their cigarettes.

Villanueva says a captain threw him out of his office when he first suggested the ban.

He says his efforts eventually prompted former Sheriff Sherman Block to prohibit smoking in the jails in 1991. The ban was something Villanueva often mentioned on the campaign trail - an early example, he says, of how he's pushed for positive change at the department.

It's also an example of his maverick ways.

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New L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. (Photo by KPCC)


Friends and colleagues say Villanueva speaks up about issues others ignore or consider too tough to tackle.

He's accustomed to being the little guy fighting the powers that be. That's how he describes his campaign for sheriff.

When he was considering running, "we were a little ragtag army," he told a Democratic club that supported him. "Literally, it was my wife and myself and she said, 'Let's do it.'"

Villanueva, who retired as a lieutenant after 32 years in the department, presents a low key image. In conversation, he's apt to stop himself mid-sentence if he perceives the other person wants to say something.

At the same time, because he's always seen himself as David taking on Goliath, he's had a certain disdain for those in power.

In 1999, he became angry with how the deputies union, the Association for Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs, was conducting its business. So Villanueva helped start an alternative union, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Professional Association. He remains its founding president.

The Sheriff's Professional Association provides attorneys for deputies in labor disputes but doesn't have the right to negotiate contracts - a significant disadvantage. That means almost all of its members are also members of the main deputies union. But Villanueva maintains his group is an important alternative voice for deputies.

"What counts is leadership," Villanueva told LAist. "Throughout my career I've stepped up to the plate."

Others describe it another way.

"He kind of did his own thing," said friend and retired Sheriff's Sergeant Danny Batanero. He said Villanueva wasn't known for hanging out with colleagues after work and going out for drinks.

"He didn't have to hang around a bunch of guys," Batanero said. "He stood on his own."

Villanueva did find his wife at the sheriff's department. She was in training to be a deputy at the East L.A. Station when they met. She, too, is retired from the department.

Alex Villanueva during his stint in the Air Force. (Courtesy of Alex Villanueva)


Born in Chicago to a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-American mother, Villanueva ended up in Southern California when he was serving in the U.S. Air Force and got assigned to San Bernardino's now closed Norton Air Force Base.

He joined the sheriff's department after leaving the Air Force in 1986.

Batanero called Villanueva a "good street cop," someone who would follow up on radio calls to make sure residents' questions were answered. He said Villanueva wasn't one of the department's hard-chargers, that he often tried to talk suspects into custody.

One call stands out, said Batanero. It was in the 1990s and Villanueva was in a foot pursuit of a stolen car suspect through an extremely hilly area called the Alps in City Terrace. Gangsters were known to change street signs to confuse cops chasing them on the winding roads.

"He did an excellent job with the radio traffic - conveying where he was and what he was doing. And he was calm," Batanero said.


Lt. Villanueva had sought to rise higher in the ranks but was passed over for captain.

He says it's because he spoke out against the corruption under former Sheriff Lee Baca and his Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Many at the department have said Tanaka, who ran the day-to-day operations, often promoted based on loyalty, not merit.

"When Baca and Tanaka decided to do unethical things in terms of promotional decision-making ... I stood up and said, you can't do that," Villanueva said. "And that is basically what destroyed my career in that framework."

In 2005, he sued the department, claiming he and other Latinos were denied promotions because of racial discrimination, and that he was retaliated against because he had "spoken out repeatedly" about the department's "racially discriminatory policies and practices."

Villanueva got on Tanaka's bad side when he spoke out about a superior mistreating a deputy when Villanueva was a sergeant at the old Lennox station in South L.A., according to Joaquin Herran, a retired sheriff's captain.

Baca and Tanaka were eventually convicted of various corruption charges and of trying to cover up deputies' abuse of jail inmates.

Villanueva never served in a high-profile position, such as media relations or policy development. Among his jobs: He was a watch commander at the women's jail in Lynwood, an instructor at the training academy, and at the time of his retirement, the watch commander over about 35 deputies at the Pico Rivera Sheriff's Station.


Villanueva has said at first he was excited when Baca was elected in 1998 and encouraged deputies to engage in continuing education. Villanueva took that to heart and in 2005 earned a PhD in Public Administration from La Verne University.

His dissertation examined how the 10 largest law enforcement organizations in the country promote their personnel and how those policies affect diversity at senior levels. Villanueva's paper ranked the L.A. sheriff's department as having the least diverse leadership of the 10 agencies.

"I went back and looked at what he did and it was a great piece of work," said La Verne Professor of Public Administration Jack Meek. "He gathered data from each of the agencies and created a framework for evaluating them."

Last week, Villanueva announced the removal of more than a dozen of the department's top leaders. He described the move as a combination of bringing in his own team and getting rid of what he perceived as corrupt leaders connected to Baca and Tanaka. It's unclear how he determined who was corrupt.

In a highly unusual move, the sheriff-elect directed last week that Lt. LaJuana Haselrig, whom Villanueva worked with at the training academy long ago, leapfrog over four ranks to become one of four assistant sheriffs. Haselrig, who is African-American, will oversee some of the most sensitive countywide functions of the department -- including homeland security, SWAT and detectives.

Captain Tim Murakami, a Japanese-American who currently commands the Industry sheriff's station, was promoted three ranks to be assistant sheriff in charge of street patrols in unincorporated L.A. County and 44 contract cities.

Villanueva says his experience in the lower ranks will serve him well as sheriff, as will his doctorate. But he's never dealt with a $3.3 billion budget and never commanded so many people. And he's never had to deal with the members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, who control his budget.

One key question is how Villanueva will handle the agendas and no doubt the pressure of two very different constituencies that got him elected.

The L.A. County Democratic Party, police watchdogs and immigrant rights groups endorsed him largely on promises he would kick ICE out of the jails, find alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illnesses and be more transparent.

But Villanueva is also close with the deputies union, which spent more than $1.3 million on his behalf during the campaign. The union's agenda is about reversing discipline meted out to deputies Sheriff McDonnell saw as corrupt, relaxing restrictions on deputies' use of force in the jails (where assaults against deputies are up) and addressing a deputy shortage that has resulted in mandatory overtime.

Villanueva says he'll set up a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" to examine deputies' claims that they were unfairly disciplined or fired by McDonnell.


12:25 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect Villanueva's swearing in as L.A. County Sheriff.

This article was originally published at 6 a.m.

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