What exactly is happening with the new L.A. County sheriff?

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in April.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, July 23, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is an extremely powerful man. As the county’s top cop, he oversees the largest sheriff’s department in the world, as well as the largest jail system in the country.

His is an agency with a $3-billion budget and roughly 16,000 employees. It’s also an agency that has weathered more than its fair share of dysfunction and internal turmoil, including a jail abuse scandal that ended with criminal convictions for former Sheriff Lee Baca and several of his top deputies.

Villanueva, a former lieutenant in the department, was a relative outsider and long-shot candidate when he rode a wave of progressive support to unseat then incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell in a historic upset in November. The victory shocked L.A.’s political establishment.


But Villanueva has faced mounting controversies since being sworn in as the county’s 33rd sheriff less than a year ago. He has reinstated troubled deputies who had previously been fired, attacked his predecessor’s jail reforms and come under fire for the continued role of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the county jail system.

The FBI is investigating a secret society of tattooed deputies in East Los Angeles as well as similar gang-like groups elsewhere within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. (The issue of “deputy gangs” far predates Villanueva’s ascent, but the inquiry “marks the return of federal law enforcement authorities tasked with digging around in the Sheriff’s Department,” as a Times story noted earlier this month.)

The progressive support that helped secure Villanueva’s surprising victory has since dissipated. The new sheriff has faced scrutiny from county supervisors, department watchdogs and some of the “contract cities” within L.A. County that are policed by the Sheriff’s Department. Los Angeles magazine recently called him “the Donald Trump of L.A. law enforcement.” On Friday, The Times revealed that Villanueva’s own son was hired to be a deputy seven months after his father took office, despite the son having a record that would probably generate scrutiny.

Los Angeles Times reporter Maya Lau has covered the Sheriff’s Department for the last two and a half years, breaking numerous major stories about the agency. I spoke with her to get a better read on what’s been happening in the agency, and who exactly Villanueva is.

Now-Sheriff Alex Villanueva (left) debating then-L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell
Alex Villanueva, left, debates then-L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell on July 23, 2018.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Broadly speaking, how different is Villanueva from his predecessor?

They have completely different personalities and backgrounds. McDonnell was a longtime law enforcement leader. He’d been chief of the Long Beach Police Department and a top-ranking official in the LAPD for a very long time. He’s much more a policy and procedure guy, more official and a bit more staid and stiff.

The highest rank Villanueva got to before becoming sheriff was lieutenant, and lieutenant is not very high ranking. He has said that he tried to promote further and was held back and discriminated against. He really identifies more as a street cop, and doesn’t feel the need to follow establishment rules. He doesn’t want to play to political pressures, or play nice with the Board of Supervisors, the county Office of the Inspector General or the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.

He switches fluidly between English and Spanish at public events and news conferences — a big change from McDonnell — and is also less of a script-reader than his predecessor was.

Sheriff Villanueva unseated McDonnell with a wave of progressive support, but many of the progressive groups that were pivotal to his victory have since turned on him. Have his positions changed since the election?

I don’t think he has changed his positions when it comes to some of the main issues from his campaign. I think that many progressives have expressed disappointment, because they thought that they were getting something else. As a Democrat who spoke out against ICE in the jails, he was the more progressive choice of the two candidates, but by no means is he a radical or far left.

For example, Villanueva gained a lot of recognition during the campaign for promising to kick ICE agents out of the jails. A lot of people took that to mean that ICE would no longer play any type of role in the jails at all, and they liked that. But even in the campaign — and I reported on this — nearly every time this came up, he said that they would kick ICE out of the jails, but still hand inmates over to ICE, just outside the jails.

I’d go to him and say, but isn’t that still cooperation? Aren’t you still kind of coordinating with ICE to some extent if you’re doing that? He said no, the most important thing was just that inmates don’t see ICE agents inside the jails. Then, fast-forward to lately, when I did a big story about ICE’s having contractors in the jails, and how they’re still transferring some people over to ICE and quoted people saying that they were disappointed. They didn’t realize this was what he had promised, and kind of felt like it was a little bit of a bait-and-switch. He changed it a little bit, because now he is actually handing people over within the jails — just to ICE contractors. But, in some ways, he did spell this out.

Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan
Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan looks on as L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva places a pin on the collar of Asst. Sheriff Maria Gutierrez at Villanueva’s swearing-in ceremony in December.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

You’ve broken a number of stories about Villanueva’s rehiring policies, particularly around troubled deputies. What’s going on there and why does it matter?

I broke a story in January about how Villanueva had rehired Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan. Mandoyan had been a driver and a volunteer on his campaign. He was also a deputy who had been fired in 2016 under McDonnell for violating department policies regarding domestic violence and dishonesty. He was accused of abusing and stalking a woman, a fellow deputy with whom he’d been in a relationship. That was Villanueva’s first reinstatement.

The reason why that one was a big deal was because Mandoyan had not only been fired, but his firing had been upheld by the Civil Service Commission, which is a county appeals board and another layer of due process. For Villanueva to unilaterally give this deputy his job back was very unusual. It also raised concerns because Mandoyan had been a campaign volunteer, and because of the seriousness of the allegations against him. Villanueva is also being sued by the county in connection to the Mandoyan matter, which is unprecedented.

So, who does the sheriff report to?

The sheriff does not report to anybody except the voters. It’s unlike the LAPD, where the chief is ultimately hired by and reports to the mayor, and the Police Commission also has some authority.

The sheriff doesn’t report to the Board of Supervisors. The only thing the Board of Supervisors can do is potentially monkey with his funding, but that doesn’t always result in change. Similarly, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission — which meets monthly and issues recommendations — does not have any real authority. Their influence is basically like a suggestion box, with the added power of public pressure. And the sheriff can follow their suggestions, or not.

The question of who really provides a check on the sheriff’s power — that’s the big question. It’s seen as one of the main differences between why the LAPD is largely seen as having cleaned up its act, and why, by contrast, the Sheriff’s Department seems to find itself dealing with controversies over and over again.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


FBI agents fanned across the Los Angeles area on Monday, serving search warrants at multiple government offices, including the Department of Water and Power, as part of an investigation into how the city responded to the disastrous rollout of a new customer billing system. Los Angeles Times

Oakland’s homeless population surged 47% between 2017 and 2019, according to new numbers released Monday by county officials. The jump means Oakland’s per-capita homeless rate now surpasses the same figure in San Francisco and Berkeley. San Francisco Chronicle

New satellite images offer a dramatic and instructive view of the immense power of the magnitude 7.1 Ridgecrest earthquake, showing how California’s biggest quake in nearly two decades caused the ground to break. Los Angeles Times

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LAX’s Global Entry Enrollment Center is indefinitely closed because the Customs and Border Protection workers are at the border. Los Angeles Times

A study for a possible aerial tram to Griffith Park is underway. An engineering firm hired by the city is analyzing the pros and cons of potentially installing a gondola or similar aerial transit system that could ferry riders in and out of the park. Curbed LA

A black female director was fired. A play about race issues at an Atwater theater never opened. What happened? Los Angeles Times

WME threatened to “blow up” the “Good Doctor” deal over packaging fees, according to the showrunner. Los Angeles Times

The latest installment in “Larger Than Life,” the podcast chronicling the life and legacy of famed L.A. street racer Big Willie Robinson, is live Tuesday. Robinson told tales about his Army service. How much was true? Los Angeles Times

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Immigration officials will be able to more quickly arrest and deport undocumented immigrants anywhere in the United States without going before a judge under a new policy released by the Trump administration. Los Angeles Times


Death penalty trials have continued despite Gov. Newsom’s moratorium. The California Supreme Court could stop them. Los Angeles Times

The wine industry has long used legal designations called appellations of origin to classify different wines. This state bill would tighten rules for claiming a place of origin in the cannabis market. Desert Sun

Taylor Swift fans are angry that Sen. Kamala Harris held a fundraiser at Scooter Braun’s house. Swift is locked in a major feud with the powerful music manager, and “Swifties,” as members of the singer’s loyal fan base are known, are taking to social media to convey their disappointment with Harris. (It should be noted that the Taylor Swift voting bloc is no small thing. When the singer — who has more Instagram followers than the combined populations of California, Texas, Florida and New York — urged her followers on the platform to register to vote last year, saw a massive and unprecedented spike in voter registration.)East Bay Times


An arrest was made nearly two years after a hit-and-run that killed a popular grocer in San Francisco. San Francisco Chronicle

Did Equifax expose your data? You can apply for part of a $700-million settlement. About 15 million Californians were affected by the Equifax hack. Sacramento Bee


Butte County is set to unveil a new, European-style warning siren aimed at alerting residents to evacuate during emergencies, nearly nine months after 85 people in the county died in the devastating Camp fire. KQED

At least 30 people were rescued in the American River on Saturday. Many of them were riding in pool inflatables. Sacramento Bee


An investigation into @KarltheFog, a Twittter account with hundreds of thousands of followers that purports to be the voice of San Francisco’s famed marine layer. SF Gate

Life imitates art imitating life: San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has shot a cameo on “Silicon Valley,” an HBO show known for skewering the tech industry. SF Gate

Hard work and early hours: Showing livestock at a county fair is far from easy. Modesto Bee

Live Nation helped Metallica and other artists place tickets directly on the resale market, without giving fans a chance to buy them through normal channels at face value. Billboard

How a mom with an online list became the doyenne of things to do with kids in Marin. Marin Independent Journal

Brunch is “kind of a big deal” in Sacramento. Here are 10 of the best spots for it in and around the city. Sacramento Bee

How to say 19 commonly mispronounced places in Sonoma County. (Hint: It’s GURN-vil, not Guerney-ville.) Santa Rosa Press-Democrat


Los Angeles: partly sunny, 87. San Diego: partly sunny, 79. San Francisco: sunny, 68. San Jose: sunny, 81. Sacramento: sunny, 96. More weather is here.


Today’s California Memory comes from Sean Robert:

“When I was a kid growing up in the early ‘60s, the San Fernando Valley was an idyllic place where neighbors knew each other, shared vacation trips and even went to Cub Scout meetings together. I had friends all around the block, and we played outside winter, spring, summer and fall — it was, of course, California! Doors were left unlocked, mothers borrowed sugar or milk, and we had dinner at each other’s house. The really neat thing was the ethnic diversity even in our little hamlet of the SFV; you could tell the origin just by the smells at dinnertime. Nicholas’ house was great with the smell of garlic and rigatoni pasta, Kathy’s house had the sweet savory smell of Mediterranean spices, and my best friend Steve always had my favorite: roasted chicken and apple strudel! Yes, we did have ‘Chicken Delight’ but mostly everyone had a home cooked meal. Early summer smelled the best with citrus blossoms, fresh mowed grass and barbecue … AND we played outside until the sun went down!”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.