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Candidates for L.A. County Sheriff spar over immigration, experience and tattoos

Candidates for L.A. County Sheriff spar over immigration, experience and tattoos
Retired Sheriff's Lt. Alex Villanueva debates L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell at an event hosted by the Professional Peace Officers Association, in Los Angeles, Calif., on July 23, 2018. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In the first debate since a challenger stunned Los Angeles County’s political establishment by forcing the incumbent sheriff into a runoff, the two candidates to be the county’s top cop sparred Monday night over immigration enforcement and deputy tattoos, each with divergent views on how to run one of the nation’s largest policing agencies.

Retired Sheriff’s Lt. Alex Villanueva, who bills himself as the “progressive choice” against Sheriff Jim McDonnell, a former Republican, drew applause when he advocated for resisting the Trump administration and keeping the department completely separate from the work of immigration officials.

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“There is going to be a very bright line between the two. I will not allow the county jail to be a pipeline for deportation,” said Villanueva, who has said he would not allow immigration authorities to set foot in the jails.

About 150 people attended the debate hosted by the Professional Peace Officers Assn., a union that represents deputies, at the Ronald F. Deaton Civic Auditorium downtown.

The Sheriff’s Department, which runs the county’s vast jail system, currently allows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to use an office designated for outside agencies in the Inmate Reception Center. A federal judge ruled this year that between 2010 and 2014, the Sheriff’s Department had been unlawfully holding people wanted by ICE, though the department no longer allows that practice.

Concerns over ICE’s access in the jails have been among the main worries raised by immigrants’ rights advocates amid President Trump’s push for mass deportations.

McDonnell replied that his agency allows ICE in the jails “only for those people who are convicted, not pre-trial, and only for those convicted of crimes delineated by state law.” That generally means those convicted of serious or violent offenses.

In June, Villanueva became one of a handful of competitors in the past century to force an incumbent sheriff into a runoff in L.A. County. He won 33% of the vote in the primary on June 5, with his support rooted in predominantly Latino areas of the county.

McDonnell, whose 48% score was a few points shy of the simple majority he needed to avoid a runoff, did well countywide, but especially in coastal regions.

Villanueva, who retired in February after three decades in the department, ran a lean campaign, raising $27,000. McDonnell raised $586,000.

McDonnell, a former Long Beach police chief and longtime LAPD official, said Villanueva lacks experience running large organizations. Villanueva suggested that his deep knowledge of the Sheriff’s Department was more valuable than McDonnell’s resume from different agencies.

The candidates also battled Monday over how to respond to deputy cliques that adorn members with matching tattoos. Earlier this month, allegations surfaced of Compton station deputies getting coordinated skull tattoos, in possible connection to a killing by deputies in 2016.

McDonnell said while deputies have a right to free expression, the tattoos tied to deputy groups can be a financial liability for the county.

“We see what happens when you go to court, and you’re asked, ‘Do you have a tattoo?’ And you show the tattoo, it becomes Exhibit A, and we write the check,” said McDonnell. He said the agency has been examining the tattoo phenomenon and that he stands by a related effort he led to get rid of a dozen logos that had been used by various units in the organization.

Villanueva said one of those images was a boot with a helmet on top of it, and that some department members were offended it had been banned. He said deputy cliques, particularly those that would bond over illegal acts, are a sign that morale in an organization is weak overall.

Still, he said some deputies who have tattoos associated with so-called cliques have been among the most honorable people he’s known. He later chided McDonnell, saying the sheriff’s stance is confusing because some executives on his command staff have the tattoos.

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The sheriff didn’t deny Villanueva’s claim, but quipped:

“Weren’t you the one who just said that some of the people with tattoos are the most honorable people you’ve ever worked with?”

The election is Nov. 6.

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