As I write this, L.A. County has just sworn in Alex Villanueva as our new sheriff.
Jimmy, we hardly knew ye. And Alex, we don’t know ye at all.
To call it an upset is the understatement of the year. Incumbent Jim McDonneIl, a former Long Beach police chief and past member of the County’s blue-ribbon Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, had only been elected sheriff in 2014, running as a reformer after the disgrace and resignation mid-term of his predecessor Lee Baca.
In the June primary, McDonnell barely missed getting re-elected outright, with nearly 48% of the vote, against challengers Villanueva (33%) and Robert Lindsey (19%). Heavily outspending Villanueva in the primary, McDonnell seemed like a shoo-in to pick up the two or three percent he needed to put him over the top in November.
But in the end, it wasn’t even that close. McDonnell, despite his additional effort, actually slipped a little from the support he’d previously had. Villanueva, meanwhile, seemingly picked up all of Lindsey’s support and then some. And so, after only four years, by a margin of 53%-47%, McDonnell became the shortest serving elected County sheriff in more than a century.
What happened between June and November? For one thing, Villanueva got endorsed by ALADS, the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the rank-and-file deputies union that has aggressively defended deputies accused of wrongdoing, and vigorously opposed many crucial reforms. For another, that support came with strings—purse strings, and policy strings. ALADS set up an independent campaign committee called the “Neighborhood Safety Coalition” that has reported spending more than $1.5 million by Election Day to elect Villanueva, more than $1.3 million of which came directly from ALADS own political action committee.
Incredibly, Villanueva literally had no public profile—a complete unknown quantity. You will search in vain for articles about him before the June primary. That’s because he retired in February 2018 at the rank of lieutenant, after 32 years with no particular distinction, never having risen past lower middle management. His last reported assignment was a watch commander supervising about 35 deputies in the Pico Rivera station. And now he’s running a law enforcement organization with a $3.3 billion annual budget and more than 18,000 positions, responsible for providing contract law enforcement services to 42 of the County’s 88 cities and to more than a million residents in its 76 unincorporated communities—including, of course, Topanga.
As near as I can tell, Villanueva ran on his Democratic Party registration (even though, like all local offices, the Sheriff is a non-partisan position), thus nailing down Democratic club endorsements. He ran on his Latino name and support for the state’s sanctuary-cities law, and implied he would downplay (but not meaningfully reduce) LA County’s cooperation with ICE, ensuring a solid, if not necessarily well-informed, progressive vote.
But more ominously, he also seems to have totally bought into the ALADS agenda to undermine Sheriff’s Department reforms. He has opposed expanding the use of deputy body-cams, which reformers agree has been critical to documenting instances of officer misconduct. Where they are already in use, he has advocated permitting deputies to review body-cam video before they write up their reports or testify in court, a position adamantly opposed by many police reform advocates because it won’t give a true picture of a deputy’s perceptions, motivations, rationales, and truthfulness when accounting for their conduct. He also opposes sharing with the District Attorney’s office the Sheriff’s Department’s “Brady list,” an internal roster of deputies with records of misconduct or credibility problems, which would allow the DA to keep them off the witness stand and avoid losing cases when their testimony is impeached by the defense.
Sheriff McDonnell wanted to share the list, but ALADS, trying to protect its deputy members, sued to stop him. The case is now before the California Supreme Court. Villanueva has called it a “fake list” often compiling unfair or retaliatory actions against deputies, not warranted discipline. He has echoed deputies’ longstanding complaints about “too much paperwork”—which is code for eliminating the kind of documentation that can expose and root out deputy misconduct. And most recently, Villanueva purged 16 seasoned, high-ranking supervisors in the Sheriff’s Department and has instead begun promoting friends and colleagues with only limited experience, in some cases jumping them three or four ranks to join his inner circle.
We can celebrate the “blue wave” that swept in 41 new Democrats to take back control of the House, win all of our statewide offices, and gain super-majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. And I do. But I’m also worried that the same blue wave has swept out a conscientious incumbent sheriff sincerely committed to reforming the department—and replaced him with an inexperienced and unqualified tool of the deputies union who will set back those reform efforts more than we can imagine.