It has finally come to this.
Los Angeles County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl have authored a motion that aims to find out what laws and ordinances would need to be changed in order to remove an LA County Sheriff from office.
“The Sheriff’s recent actions have made it clear that reform efforts undertaken to restore public trust and confidence in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will continue to be undermined despite current public scrutiny demanding that the Sheriff do otherwise,” the supervisors wrote.
The motion — which was originally scheduled to be voted up or down on Tuesday, Oct 27, and is now continued to November 10 — asks County Counsel, plus Inspector General Max Huntsman and Acting Chief Executive Officer Fesia Davenport, along with several other relevant stakeholders, to come back in 30 days with “options for removing or impeaching the Los Angeles County Sheriff,” which should include “any necessary changes to the County Charter or county code to make this possible.”
In some ways more significantly, the motion asks for a report back on what it would take to amend the California Constitution along with the LA County Charter in order to make the head law enforcement officer of LA County an appointed position, such as a police chief, rather than an elected one.
Both reports are supposed to be back to the board in 30 days.
The question of whether Los Angeles County is irrevocably stuck with its ever more controversy-plagued sheriff, Alex Villanueva — at least until Villanueva is up for election two years from now — came up with surprising force a little over a month ago when, on September 17, near the end of a virtual meeting of the LA County Civilian Oversight Commission (COC), commissioner Robert Bonner told the commission chairman he needed a few minutes to speak.
“I don’t take this step lightly,” Bonner continued in a tone that suggested the statement, and what it signified, had cost him. “I do this because it has become apparent as he has demonstrated on multiple occasions that he lacks the judgment to be the sheriff, and that he’s unable to provide the leadership needed by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.”
Bonner then listed the actions of the sheriff, which led him to the conclusion that Villanueva had to go. The LA County Sheriff’s Department deserves better, he said, “and “the men and women of the sheriff’s department deserve better.”
Bonner’s statement could not itself change anything. Yet, the fact that the conservative-leaning, unusually thoughtful, former federal judge, former U.S. attorney, former head of the DEA, former head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was the guy to say the unsayable, seemed suddenly to kick the metaphorical door open for others to consider saying it too.
Bonner’s move, which appeared even to have gobsmacked his fellow commissioners, was followed by similar statements by a couple of members of the board supervisors, along with other expressions of fading confidence in the sheriff.
Sheila Kuehl, who along with Ridley-Thomas, had called for Villanueva’s resignation, told the LA Times that Villanueva was a “rogue sheriff.”
At the next COC meeting, on October 15, the commission approved a formal resolution calling for the resignation of the sheriff.
An unhappy union
The COC resolution was expected. It was not expected however, when the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs or ALADS, the main union representing the county’s deputies, issued its own fury-drenched message on the subject to its members, which the board of supervisors also received on October 18.
The headline of the ALADS email read as follows:
LEADERSHIP FAILURE: IF THE SHERIFF DOESN’T RESIGN HIS STAFF SHOULD
The announcement went on to talk about a “fantasy” curtailment wish list — curtailments, meaning cuts — that they’d just received, and which included, among other things, Villanueva’s insistence on “curtailing” the LASD’s Park Bureau.
It seems that before making these decisions, the sheriff and his staff did not negotiate* with the union on these curtailments that would greatly affect the lives of many deputies.
“The only thing the Department’s correspondence accomplishes,” wrote ALADS, “is a highlight of its failure to respect the bargaining process, which ultimately shows the massive confusion rampant inside the Department.”
In the following days, other people and groups joined with their own expressions of dismay.
State Senator Holly Mitchell, who is running to replace Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in LA County’s second supervisory district, appeared on Spectrum TV, applauding the supervisors for speaking out, explaining there was “a deep concern about the course of business in terms of the law enforcement organization that [Villanueva] is leading.”
Sheriff Villanueva predictably fought back. On Instagram on Oct 21, he opened his live broadcast by calling the COC the “attack dogs of the board of supervisors,” with whom he continues to pick fights. Later that day, he moved over to Twitter to deliver a snarky Tweet aimed at Mitchell. And so on.
Yet, the expressions of concern and displeasure continued to pile up. Back in August, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, which had provided one of Villanueva’s most important endorsements in November 2016, issued a formal rebuke to the sheriff who they said had violated the public trust.
“He came in with an expectation and a real optimism from his supporters that he was going to reform the department…” the author of the resolution told Jason McGahan of LA Magazine. “And instead he’s doing favors for friends, he’s combative, he’s not transparent, and he’s focusing on all these things that he never campaigned on.”
Earlier this week, on October 23, KPCC’s Frank Stoltze tweeted that the LA Dems too were now considering joining the push for the sheriff’s resignation.
Truth and consequence
So, do any of these calls for the sheriff’s ouster matter? Well, yes and no. At least, none of them matter legally.
Eight years ago, former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, summed up the conundrum of what to do about a problem sheriff, when he was questioned in the summer of 2012 at a public hearing held by the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence.
The moment came after Lee Baca had spent much of his time in front of the commission bobbing and weaving in response to anything resembling a probing question. Finally, the commission’s lead counsel, Richard Drooyan, posed the question that was on many people’s minds.
“So, how do we hold you accountable?” asked a frustrated Drooyan.
Baca, who never tired of reminding members of the board of supervisors of his vote-getting power, paused for two long beats then smiled serenely.
“Don’t elect me,” he said.
Sheriff Villanueva has often delivered his own version of that same message.
All of which brings us back to the new Ridley-Thomas/Kuehl motion.
Elected v. appointed
Forty-six states in the U.S. elect their county sheriffs, California prominently included. On one hand, this structure should represent democracy at work. Yet, as the need for justice reform and reimagining becomes ever more pressing, urgent questions are being raised, both locally and nationally, about whether electing a county’s top law enforcement figure conveys a large amount of power without much accountability.
The matter has been up for discussion in recent years in Republican-leaning Orange County. In King County, WA, which includes Seattle, voters will decide on November 3, whether their county sheriff should now be an appointed position. There is also a growing movement to reexamine the issue in multiple other states and municipalities such as Broward County, FLA.
And now the push has arrived in earnest in Los Angeles County, home to the nation’s largest and most powerful sheriff’s department. It comes in the form of this new motion that, in order to explain what got us here, ticks off the series of strategies that the board of supervisors has tried in the past in order to promote “accountability and transparency” within the county’s primary law enforcement agency.
First there were the years of violence and corruption in the county’s jails, culminating in the indictment and conviction of at least two dozen LASD personnel. In response, in October 2012, the board created an oversight structure, consisting of the Office of Inspector General (OIG). When that didn’t feel like enough, the board created the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) in December of 2014.
The supervisors added subpoena power for the COC in October 2019, and the efforts went on from there.
Nevertheless, write the authors, “it has become increasingly clear that the Sheriff’s blatant disregard for transparency and accountability requires a more forceful response.”
And so the motion.
“We managed to inherit the worst sheriff in recent memory,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas told WitnessLA on Sunday evening regarding the necessity for the new motion.
“And he has precipitated what is as close to a constitutional crisis at a local level that we’ve ever seen. Therefore, we have to use executive authority, legislative authority, and judicial authority, all three branches of government, to correct what he’s doing, and ultimately create an exit path for the current sheriff.
“The board of supervisors,” Ridley-Thomas concluded, “the men and women of the LA County Sheriff’s Department, and the people of Los Angeles County have said enough.”
UPDATE: As you’ll notice above, after some discussion, action on the motion was postponed until November 10.
*Update and correction, 10/26/2020, 10:47 a.m. Originally we paraphrased what was said in the ALADS message to its members, and wrote that the sheriff and his staff “never so much as chatted with the union” on the curtailments mentioned. The actual language used in the ALADS message was that the “none of the information provided in that notice has been negotiated with the unions!” Exclamation mark theirs.