Will Los Angeles re-elect its scandal-plagued sheriff? | Los Angeles

Los Angeles county voters are headed to the polls on Tuesday to decide the fate of a scandal-plagued sheriff who critics have derided as the “Donald Trump of LA”.

The Los Angeles county sheriff, Alex Villanueva, runs the largest county sheriff’s office in the US and manages one of the world’s largest jail systems, overseeing thousands of officers who patrol nearly 200 southern California towns and cities.

Villanueva was a little-known lieutenant when he was elected in 2018, becoming the first candidate to unseat an incumbent LA sheriff in more than a century. The first Spanish speaker to hold the job, he won office with the support of some Democrats and progressive groups after campaigning to bring about reform and accountability within the department.

But during the last four years, he has baffled erstwhile supporters, adopting a “tough on crime” approach, rejecting outside efforts to address misconduct, lashing out at critics and the media, spreading racist tropes about crime, and becoming a favorite among some far -right pundits. He has been at the center of a steady stream of scandals, in a department that has a long history of abuse, misconduct and corruption cases.

In 2013, 18 sheriff’s deputies faced criminal charges surrounding the systematic beatings of incarcerated people, and the former top sheriff and the second-in-command were later sentenced to prison in obstruction and corruption cases.

Villanueva’s critics – which include elected officials across California, civil rights groups, families affected by police brutality, his current and former staff, and the county’s inspector general – describe a culture of violence and impunity that has worsened under his tenure.

“He learned from Trump how to use his public platform to divide people and make people afraid,” said Anne Irwin, director of Smart Justice California, an advocacy group.

‘He acts lawlessly’

Villanueva fulfilled his campaign pledge to bring body cameras to the department, and he also restricted federal immigration authorities’ access to jails.

But the department has also been rocked by many major scandals. Villanueva has received national scrutiny over reports of “deputy gangs” – cliques of officers with matching tattoos and names like the Banditos, Executioners and Grim Reapers, who are accused of promoting brutality and racist policing.

Sheriff's deputies walk next to a barrier outside the hall of justice.
Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles county sheriff, has received scrutiny over reports of ‘deputy gangs’ within the department who are accused of racist policing. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

The inspector general, the top watchdog for the sheriff’s department, has identified more than 40 such groups within the department. But Villanueva has consistently denied their existence.

He has defied subpoenas by the inspector general, has demanded the county’s board of supervisors stop using the phrase “deputy gangs”, and has ordered the department’s “civil rights and public integrity” unit – reportedly known internally as Villanueva’s “secret police” – to investigate officials who speak out.

Separately, a whistleblower has claimed Villanueva personally directed a cover-up of an incident, captured on film, in which jail guards knelt on the head of a handcuffed man for three minutes.

A former adviser to the sheriff further alleged that Villanueva lied when he said he only saw the film months after the incident, but instead watched the footage with him days after it happened.

Villanueva’s response to the allegations echoed his approach to the deputy gangs reports. At a controversial press conference, he announced he was investigating the leak and displayed the photo of two critics and the LA Times journalist who had first revealed the footage: “These three people have some important questions to answer,” he said.

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s department has faced consistent scrutiny for its high number of police shootings, including the killing of Dijon Kizzee, a 29-year-old man who was fleeing on a bike after officers tried to stop him for a “vehicle code” violation , and for reports of brutality by guards inside LA county jails.

Sheriff's deputies in full police gear and weapons stand next to a funnel cake shack on Venice boardwalk.
Armed deputies perform homeless ‘outreach’ in full police gear at Venice Beach boardwalk on 8 June 2021. Photograph: Sarah Reingewirtz/AP

Critics have accused the sheriff of aggravating tensions within the county with aggressive actions, such as sending armed deputies to do homeless “outreach” in a region facing rising tensions over encampments, but where the department does not typically have jurisdiction. And he has faced backlash for spreading baseless accusations, recently claiming, without any evidence, that the inspector general investigating him was a “Holocaust denier”.

“He acts lawlessly,” said Stephanie Luna of Villanueva. Luna’s nephew, Anthony Vargas, was 21 when he was killed by LA sheriff’s deputies in 2018. Her family has frequently protested against the sheriff and says the department has retaliated by harassing them and other families, showing up at their events, threatening them and following them. “His deputies have no regard for public safety. He is emboldening his deputies to act this way because there is a lack of consequence.

“People are trying to hold him accountable for the misconduct that’s happening in the sheriff’s department, and instead of being willing to investigate the claims, he’s actively dismissing them and alleging they’re non-existent.”

Sheriff: investigations are ‘political’

Villanueva has directly criticized the advocacy of Vargas’s family on multiple occasions. In an interview with the Guardian last week, he dismissed the family’s harassment claims and said he was speaking out against a “whole cottage industry of activists that want to defund or abolish the sheriff’s department”.

People hold up placards reading 'Defund LAPD' in front of a metal barrier.
People gather outside the hall of justice in downtown Los Angeles on September 17, 2020 to protest the shooting of Dijon Kizzee. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

“I don’t begrudge any mother who lost her son,” he added.

The sheriff brushed aside the complaints against the department and the lawsuits brought against him, saying they were brought by people who were “actively sabotaging the department since the day I was sworn in”.

The sheriff also said the reports of deputy gangs in the department was a “problem of perception, not reality”.

“Are there people within the organization that we’re unaware of yet that may be involved in something? I’m pretty sure, especially in an organization of our size, of course there are,” he said.

Yet he contended the concerns were “driven by trial attorneys and opportunistic politicians” and a “cabal of people” creating a “false narrative”.

He said he had terminated 148 employees for excessive force, making false statements and other misconduct since taking office. “But I can’t line up people and shoot them and bury them in a grave,” he said. “I don’t know what else they want me to do.”

He disputed he had targeted his opponents with investigations: “There’s nothing inappropriate about us investigating crime,” he said, adding he had no interest in complying with “political subpoenas”.

The sheriff added he considered himself a “moderate Democrat”, and said he felt that Democratic leadership in LA county and the state of California had become “extreme hard left … socialist, ultra-progressives”.

Villanueva again didn’t provide any evidence for his claim that Max Huntsman, the inspector general, was a “Holocaust denier”, a claim Huntsman said was “deeply offensive” and untrue. Instead, he asked why there was no outrage when Huntsman called him a “criminal”, before his PR representative interjected to stop questions about the matter.

Pins on a person's shirt bear likenesses of Alex Villanueva with the words 'Adios Villanueva' and 'Boot the bandito'.
Villanueva’s critics are advocating for any other challenger except Villanueva, but have failed to rally behind a specific challenger. Photograph: Caroline Brehman/EPA

Villanueva’s challengers

Villanueva is battling eight challengers in the 7 June primary: six current and former sheriff’s department officials, a state parole agent and a retired Long Beach police chief.

Most of his opponents lack name recognition, some have ties to the department’s scandals, and most have failed to win over the sheriff department’s many critics. Most critics instead are advocating “anyone but Villanueva”. But with critics failing to rally behind one challenger, some pundits predict Villanueva could perform well at the polls.

If Villanueva earns more than 50% of the vote, he will secure re-election, otherwise the top two winners will face off in November.

Vincent Miller, an attorney representing more than a dozen whistleblowers from within the department who have alleged retaliation, said Villanueva was “destroying careers”, adding that deputies were fearful of the potential of another term: “They know that if he gets re-elected , it’s going to feed his illusions that he doesn’t have to answer to anybody.”

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