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Illustration of 2022 Election mayoral candidates Alex Villanueva and Robert Luna, side by side, from chest up, with watermark of LA county and city seals in background.
(Dan Carino
/
LAist)
LA County Sheriff
The sheriff is one of the most powerful elected officials in L.A. County. Robert Luna, the former Long Beach police chief, is running against incumbent Alex Villanueva.
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What Does The L.A. County Sheriff Do?

The sheriff is one of the most powerful elected officials in L.A. County. The District Attorney and Assessor are the only other officials elected by the entire county.

The position of an elected county sheriff is enshrined in the California constitution, and it is a powerful one. Unlike appointed city police chiefs who answer to mayors, city councils and city managers, sheriffs are beholden only to the voters. The Board of Supervisors allocates the sheriff's budget each year; that is the one way a Board can directly influence a sheriff. The Board has placed a measure on November's ballot that asks voters whether the supervisors should have the power to remove a sheriff from office for certain types of misconduct.

More Voter Guides

City of Los Angeles

L.A. County

  • Sheriff: Compare the two candidates for L.A. County sheriff
  • Water Agencies: Learn what they do and what to look for in a candidate

How to evaluate judges

California propositions

  • Propositions 26 and 27: The difference between the sports betting ballot measures
  • Proposition 29: Why kidney dialysis is on your ballot for the third time
  • Proposition 30: Why Lyft is the biggest funder of this ballot measure

Head to the Voter Game Plan homepage for guides to the rest of your ballot.

The sheriff serves four-year terms and there are no term limits.

The person who holds this position oversees the country’s largest sheriff’s department: it currently has more than 9,000 sworn deputies and about 7,000 civilian employees, ranging from crime lab technicians to cooks who prepare meals for people in jail.

The Sheriff’s Department patrols all unincorporated areas of the county. That includes communities such as East L.A., Willowbrook, La Crescenta-Montrose and Castaic.

The department provides policing services to 42 cities in the county, including Lancaster, Palmdale, Altadena, Compton and Malibu. (The L.A. Police Department is responsible for law enforcement inside L.A. city limits.)

The department also patrols parts of the MTA subway, light rail and bus system and provides security for a wide variety of public buildings, including courthouses, public hospitals and community colleges.

The biggest difference between the Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD is that the sheriff operates the seven big jails in the county, including Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers in downtown L.A., and the sprawling Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.

Under state law, the sheriff has jurisdiction throughout the entire county — even in areas patrolled by the LAPD and smaller police departments.

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Issues Facing The Sheriff's Department

Homelessness

The next sheriff will have to decide how deputies will interact with unhoused people and whether the department will coordinate any response with social service workers and nonprofit organizations.

The next sheriff will have to decide the extent to which deputies will be involved in anti-camping enforcement, including in areas that are under the jurisdiction of other law enforcement agencies. Another question the next sheriff will have to answer: Should unhoused people be cited or arrested for trespassing, urinating in public or other quality of life offenses when they are unlikely to be able to afford the fine or show up in court, which can result in a warrant for their arrest?

Deputy subgroups or gangs

Secretive subgroups of deputies, also referred to as gangs, have existed in the department for decades. Members have matching tattoos and some allegedly engage in violence against residents as part of their initiation. In 2019, eight deputies at the East L.A. Station accused a group of colleagues who call themselves the Banditos of harassing and attacking deputies who did not support them — and said the department did little to prevent such groups.

Reports from the Inspector General, The RAND Corporation and Loyola Law School say these groups are a major problem. The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission has launched an investigation. The next sheriff will have to address how to rid the department of these subgroups, which some believe are emblematic of a culture of impunity at the agency.

People with mental health problems

Law enforcement interactions with people experiencing a mental health crisis can spiral out of control; there have been a number of cases in which deputies ended up killing the person.

The next sheriff will have to decide whether to create more mental evaluation teams, which consist of one specially-trained deputy and one mental health clinician, to respond to such calls. Doing so will require additional funding, so they’ll also have to decide whether to lobby the Board of Supervisors for more money for such teams. Will he go further and support responding to calls involving people who appear to have mental health issues or are otherwise acting erratically — but who are not violent — with unarmed clinicians instead of deputies?

Oversight

Former Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff were convicted of obstruction of justice and sent to prison for trying to cover up deputy violence against jail inmates. In response, the county created the Office of Inspector General and Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to watchdog the department. Sheriff Villanueva has resisted greater oversight. For example, under state and county law, the Office of the Inspector General and the Oversight Commission have subpoena power, but Villanueva argues neither entity has the right to subpoena an elected sheriff and he has fought subpoenas in court. The next sheriff will have to decide whether to cooperate with requests for greater oversight and transparency.

The jails

Six years ago, the Sheriff’s Department signed an agreement with the federal government to improve conditions for people in jail. But a recent monitor’s report found people held in jail who have serious mental illnesses continue to suffer in isolation and with little treatment. The monitor also said cells were overflowing with garbage, and filth was spread on the walls, with a pile of razors abandoned in one hallway. The next sheriff will have to figure out how to improve conditions for people in jail.

Watch Their Debate


Robert Luna

Former Long Beach police chief 

17:59
Listen: Luna talks to our newsroom about his candidacy

His background:

Luna’s career in Long Beach law enforcement spans 36 years. He began as a reserve officer in 1985, according to his campaign website.

In February 1992, Luna was one of three officers who opened fire at a man who they said pointed a gun at them as they tried to serve a narcotics search warrant. The man was struck by one bullet and died. An LBPD review board found the officers’ tactics and shooting did not violate department policy, and the District Attorney’s office determined the shooting was justified.

Luna’s biography says he was promoted through every rank in the department before being sworn in as chief in November 2014. He oversaw the department (which currently has about 800 officers and 1,200 total employees) for seven years before retiring at the end of 2021.

What he's running on:

  • Reform: Luna says under Villanueva, the department "is in a crisis of leadership, accountability, and public trust." On his website, he says the incumbent “has failed to root out misconduct, rejected oversight, and destroyed public trust." Luna argues that “[r]estoring public trust requires an outsider with leadership experience and a proven commitment to transparency and accountability.” He says he would work with government leaders, comply with subpoenas, and enforce the county’s vaccination mandate.
  • Reduce Crime: "To address crime, we must hold habitual offenders accountable for their actions," Luna says on his website. "Law enforcement must implement a data-driven approach, be relentless in investigations, and be surgical with interventions. In addition, law enforcement must coordinate with the DA’s Office to create a plan for habitual offenders, especially for individuals accused of gun violence."
  • Deputy Gangs: Luna notes the department "has been plagued by gangs and cliques for decades" and vows to "change the culture" to get rid of them. "As Sheriff, I will eradicate gangs and cliques within the Department by repairing the management structure, implementing protocols to stop deputies from participating in gangs, and enforcing consequences when we find staff who are involved in gang activities," he says on his website.
  • Homelessness: Luna points to his work as Long Beach police chief helping to create a "Clinician in Jail" program that "provides specialized mental health counseling with the goal of breaking the cycle of homelessness to incarceration." He promises to ensure that "case management and diversion programs are offered on our streets, in our jails, and also in our courtrooms." Luna supports "the creation of a multidisciplinary team to respond to non-life-threatening emergencies."

Controversies and criticisms:

  • Surveillance, transparency and gay stings: Under Luna, the Long Beach Police Department suspended its use of a self-deleting texting app called TigerText in 2018 after civil rights groups expressed concern it could be used to hide evidence in court cases. An independent review later found the department's use of TigerText did not violate any laws or city policies, and that claims that it could be used to conceal evidence did not "have any inherent logic."

    In 2016, a judge condemned the department for conducting lewd conduct sting operations that targeted gay men. Luna maintains he did not know the operations were happening.

    In June, a Long Beach city commission recommended a ban on some police surveillance technology, including facial recognition software, which came under fire from the ACLU and some in the community while Luna was chief.

  • Police shootings, funding, and misconduct:

    A 2018 investigation by the Long Beach Post found the Long Beach Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in L.A. County that doesn’t interview its officers after they’ve shot someone. “Instead of facing questioning by investigators, Long Beach officers write reports that higher-ups in the homicide division review and suggest areas where the officer needs to add details or clarifications,” the paper reported.

    An expert on police practices called Long Beach’s approach “problematic,” saying it creates opportunities for inaccuracies “or glossed-up accounts of what happened,” according to the Post. The report found Long Beach’s practice also runs counter to the DA’s protocols, which say “all officers or deputies who witnessed the incident should be interviewed separately and recorded.”

    Luna’s department issued a statement defending the policy, in use for more than two decades, as “the best way to get the most accurate and firsthand information about an incident.” It added: “[t]he fact that other agencies use different procedures does not mean our process is bad or their process is better. We should never confuse the ‘most common practice’ as being ‘the best practice.’” The statement noted that “[n]o court, at any level (Federal or State, Criminal or Civil) has ever called into question our reporting process.”

    When Luna announced his candidacy for sheriff last year, about a half dozen Black Lives Matter activists stood behind him and shouted “shame,” holding up posters emblazoned with the names of police shooting victims from recent years. “Don’t let Luna fail up,” one sign read.

    The protesters faulted Luna for seeking to increase the police budget instead of diverting resources to mental health and other social workers. Luna said he's “open to dialogue with anyone.” He later pledged to sit down with his critics, including Black Lives Matter, “100 percent.”

    Two days after Luna's announcement, Long Beach police officers Dedier Reyes and David Salcedo were arrested on suspicion of filing false reports. They pleaded not guilty in April.

    In an interview with LAist, Luna acknowledged that things didn’t always go smoothly during his tenure as chief. “When you are the police chief of a large city, you are going to face adversity,” he said. “Things aren’t always going to go well.” Luna said he always tried to address conflicts head on.

    “We hire from the human race; we sometimes make mistakes,” he said. “I am open to change, ready to pivot, as [I] listen to what the community is telling us.”

  • George Floyd protests: During the 2020 protests in downtown Long Beach over the murder of George Floyd, Long Beach police responded aggressively to demonstrators. One shot KPCC/LAist reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez with a foam projectile while he was covering a protest. The department concluded the shooting was within policy.

    During the Floyd protests, Long Beach police officer Jacob Delgado posted a photo of himself on Instagram holding his baton above a bloodied floor. According to Buzzfeed, the officer's sibling reposted the photo on his own Instagram account and added the caption, "Bro getting his.”

    Luna called the images "very disturbing," adding that they "are not in line with the high standards we hold our officers accountable for." The department said it opened an investigation on June 4, 2020, and it fired Delgado the next day.

    Commenting on the firing, Luna told the Long Beach Post: “We hold our employees to the highest standards and will not ignore behavior that erodes public trust.”

    Luna also came in for criticism from business owners for not doing enough to protect stores that were broken into during the first night of protests. In remarks to the Long Beach City Council on June 9, 2020, he acknowledged that his department underestimated how many people would take part in the demonstrations, according to the Long Beach Post.

    “Our biggest win that evening was not having anyone get critically injured or killed, but our biggest disappointment was feeling that we failed some of our individual business owners,” the Post quoted Luna as telling the council.

More resources:

Alex Villanueva

L.A. County Sheriff

His background:

16:27
Listen: Villanueva talks to our newsroom about his run for reelection

Villanueva joined the Sheriff’s Department in 1986. In his early years he pushed for a ban on deputies smoking in the jails, which he says led former Sheriff Sherman Block to impose a ban in 1991. In 1999, he became angry with how the deputies union was conducting its business, so he formed a competing union, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Professional Association. Villanueva rose to lieutenant, but was passed over for promotion to captain. He claimed it was because he spoke out about corruption under former Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka. Villanueva retired after serving for 32 years before launching his successful campaign for sheriff in 2018. This is his first reelection effort.

What he's running on:

  • Deputy Gangs: On his campaign website, Villanueva says he is "the first Sheriff to publicly ban deputy gangs."
  • Local Hiring and Diversity: Villanueva says on the site the department now recruits 100% of its deputies from the communities it patrols, and has increased the proportion of women deputies to 19%.
  • Raising Standards: “As part of our mission of moving from warrior to a guardian culture,” the sheriff claims he’s raised the standards for prospective deputies: “All applicants … must have an Associates or AA degree.”
  • Removed ICE from the Jails: Villanueva claims he’s the “first major sheriff in America to ban ICE transfers.” He stopped allowing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to station agents inside the jails, and dramatically reduced the number of people turned over to ICE after their release from jail.
  • Transparency and Accountability: The sheriff claims on his campaign site that his department is “leading the nation in transparency and accountability,” citing the fact that all patrol deputies are now equipped with body-worn cameras.

Controversies and criticisms:

  • Oversight and transparency: Villanueva has clashed repeatedly with the county inspector general, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, and the County Board of Supervisors over transparency and accountability. He claims they are using those issues as a means of attacking him politically; the IG, the COC and members of the Board of Supervisors say the sheriff is resisting lawful oversight. The COC even called on the sheriff to resign in Oct. 2020.
  • Claims of politically-motivated investigations: The oversight battle led County Counsel Rod Castro-Silva to accuse Villanueva in December 2021 of “intimidating, politically motivated investigations” of his critics, including the inspector general, a member of the Civilian Oversight Commission, and the former Los Angeles County CEO. Castro-Silva asked California Attorney General Rob Bonta to “assume control” of the inquiries. The attorney general’s office has agreed to review two of the sheriff’s investigations.

    In September 2022, County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl — who has frequently clashed with Villaneuva — accused the department of political motivation in its investigation into possible corruption involving a contract between L.A. Metro and a local nonprofit. Deputies searched Metro's offices, Kuehl's home and office, the home of Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission member Patti Giggans, and the office of Peace Over Violence, the nonprofit Giggans heads that contracted with Metro. Kuehl and Giggans have dismissed the investigation as groundless.

  • Allegations of a coverup: A former member of the sheriff's inner circle has accused him of trying to cover up an incident in which a sheriff's deputy was caught on surveillance video kneeling on an incarcerated man's head for three minutes. Robin Limon, who was an assistant sheriff, said she watched the video with Villanueva days after the March 2021 incident and claims the sheriff blocked an internal criminal investigation into the episode. Villanueva claims he did not see the video until eight months later. In a lawsuit, Limon claims Villanueva retaliated against her when news of the video first surfaced, ordering her to retire or be demoted to lieutenant. She was demoted.
  • Rehiring fired deputies: Villanueva has also been criticized for rehiring deputies who had been fired by his predecessor for misbehavior. The most prominent case involved Carl Mandoyan, fired by the former sheriff for domestic violence and dishonesty. Villanueva rehired Mandoyan — who was Villanueva’s personal driver during his campaign — shortly after taking office, a move the Board of Supervisors challenged successfully in court.
  • Pandemic response: Although he said he got vaccinated against COVID-19 and he urged his deputies to get vaccinated, Villanueva refused to enforce the county’s vaccine mandate. Then last fall, Villanueva said LASD would no longer use the county’s COVID-19 testing and registration program run by Fulgent Genetics, claiming the FBI warned him and top county officials at a Nov. 26 meeting that genetic data “will likely be shared with the Republic of China” by the company. Fulgent said that wasn’t true and announced that it would sue Villanueva over his remarks.
  • Homelessness: Villanueva has accused social service workers and nonprofit organizations of coddling people on the streets, calling them part of a "homeless industrial complex" that takes public funds but doesn't solve the problem. In June 2021, he took the unusual step of sending his deputies to the Venice Boardwalk, which is LAPD territory, to enforce the city of L.A.’s “anti-camping law” and clear dozens of tents. (The anti-camping law, Ordinance 41.18. bans people who are unhoused from camping on public property close to locations such as schools, daycare centers, parks, libraries, and underpasses within the city of L.A.) Villanueva said he acted because the city’s then-moratorium on removing unhoused people’s tents during the day had “handcuffed” the LAPD.
Website: alexvillanueva.org
Campaign finance: Filings with L.A. County Registrar-Recorder and contributors
Endorsements:List of endorsements (listed on homepage)

More resources

Follow The Money

A drawing of a man's mouth and jaw at the top, with the rest of the drawing taken up with a brown sheriff's uniform, with a dark tie, gold star with a blue circle on it over the man's chest, and a green patch with a star in the middle just below the man's shoulder. Superimposed on the uniform are the words Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff.
3:26
3:26
Introducing Season 3: Imperfect Paradise - The Sheriff
Alex Villanueva, an underdog maverick, runs for LA County Sheriff as a progressive reformer in 2018 and wins, surprising everyone. After taking office, he turns into a vindictive leader who mocks reform, protects his friends and attacks his enemies. And now he’s up for re-election. Follow veteran KPCC correspondent Frank Stoltze as he pieces together this story in a 5-episode season of Imperfect Paradise launching October 5, 2022. Subscribe to Imperfect Paradise, Season 3: The Sheriff.

More Voter Guides

City of Los Angeles

L.A. County

  • Sheriff: Compare the two candidates for L.A. County sheriff
  • Water Agencies: Learn what they do and what to look for in a candidate

How to evaluate judges

California propositions

  • Propositions 26 and 27: The difference between the sports betting ballot measures
  • Proposition 29: Why kidney dialysis is on your ballot for the third time
  • Proposition 30: Why Lyft is the biggest funder of this ballot measure

Head to the Voter Game Plan homepage for guides to the rest of your ballot.