By Jessica Pishko
During the last Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission meeting, it was unclear that Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva would actually appear. The faces of the Commissioners were filled with uncertainty, some with amusement. Should they move on to a new topic?
When Sheriff Villanueva did pop onscreen in his tiny box, he did not apologize nor did he seem to realize that he was late. He read a prepared statement, repeating that he should be praised for being the only sheriff to “deal with” the problem of deputy gangs. But when asked by members of the COC whether he would support outlawing them? Villanueva refused to answer; then, when, pressed, gave a hard, “No.”
“Deputy cliques exist in every organization on the face of the earth,” he declared.
Robert Bonner, a member of the COC and former prosecutor, was astonished. Histone turned hostile. But Villanueva would not budge and would not apologize. During public comments – largely consisting of community members who had experienced the deadly violence of deputy gangs – he got up and left without a word.
All of this is not unusual behavior for Villanueva. Elected with the overwhelming support of official Democrat institutions, the sheriff has been rude, crude, and completely inept. He’s alienated all other members of government and appears to have aligned himself with the groups who want to remove District Attorney George Gascon, Governor Gavin Newsom, and other right-leaning sheriffs (which includes other sheriffs of Southern California).
Most recently, he flouted California law and refused to release the names of deputies involved in shootings until the Los Angeles Times wrote a long story about the problem. Then, he changed his mind, all without acknowledging that he was wrong.
In many ways, Villanueva perfectly reflects both the ethos of the sheriff and why it’s a problematic office. Elected independently and unaccountable to county government, sheriffs traditionally are more culturally and political conservative that the urban areas they contain. Villanueva has used his brand of populism to wage war on progressive causes in his county, with seemingly complete amnesia that these were the people who got him elected.
Villanueva’s defense of deputy gangs is, at this point, so ridiculous that no one can listen to it with a straight face. He says that he cannot control deputy gangs because his counsel tells him such cliques are protected by the First Amendment. He’s argued that that there are good people “on both sides,” that he cannot demand deputies show their tattoos – some of which include skulls, Nazi symbols, and flames. Bear in the mind that the demand is simple, to disallow deputy gangs within the LASD; no one faces criminal sanctions. (Yet.)
There have been multiple legal opinions written to support such a rule, the most recent by COC member Richard Bonner. Setting aside the complete hypocrisy of a law enforcement office that continues to enforce laws against so-called “street gangs” arguing that gangs amongst law enforcement is fine, there’s ample historical, legal, and data-based evidence to show that LASD gangs make people much less safe and undermine any credibility the office may have. Reporting by Cerise Castle shows that LASD gangs have been responsible for a host of shootings and incidents of excessive force. But her reporting does more than just recite a litany of horrors – it shows through the number of and horribleness of the incidents over decades just how entrenched gangs are in the LASD. There is no public comment, no oversight, no legal opinion that can overcome that history.
The sheriff’s recalcitrance is evidence for the reasons why Los Angeles should eliminate the sheriff’s department. Check the Sheriff has proposed a charter amendment that would make it easier to impeach and remove a sheriff, which I think is helpful, but not enough to prevent future harms. The sheriff’s office needs to be dismantled entirely. It’s clear that it’s just too much power – too much power typically wielded by men with too little experience and too much investment in deputy gang culture.
It would require an amendment to the California constitution, but that is not excessively difficult. With such a change, California counties could decide whether they want county sheriffs (through popular election or a charter amendment) and have options to eliminate the office or reduce its power by redirecting jobs traditionally under the purview of the sheriffs to other departments. The LASD, for example, polices contract cities, hospitals and parks, which could all opt for different public safety plans that do not rely on an emotional and angry man. County jail should be under the purview of health departments, not law enforcement.
Villanueva has cast his lot with the conservative forces at work in California (and the nation), the ones who want to “wake the bear” (figuratively and literally). But, the movement needs to also think about the sheriff’s office as more than the man Villanueva has shown himself to be – we need to also think about how to eliminate an office that has over and over again been prone to abuse, mistrust, and violence.
Jessica Pishko is a lawyer, writer and researchers who focuses on sheriffs.
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