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Supervisors join calls for Sheriff Villanueva to step down

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Two Los Angeles County supervisors joined with several members of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission in calling on Sheriff Alex Villanueva to resign, saying he’s dragged his feet on critical reforms, resisted oversight of the department and failed to hold deputies accountable.

The move marks perhaps a nadir in dealings between the sheriff and his overseers, who have complained about his department’s lack of transparency and clashed over policing reform measures.

“It is with great reluctance that I call on Sheriff Villanueva to resign,” said Commissioner Robert Bonner during the commission’s public meeting Thursday. “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deserves better and so do the people of Los Angeles County.”

The sheriff is independently elected and has only limited oversight from the commission and the Board of Supervisors. A spokesman said Villanueva plans to continue to serve in his job. Villanueva said Thursday he would continue serving the community.

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“I’m just gonna ignore it and move on,” Villanueva said.

Bonner is a former federal prosecutor, a former U.S. District Court judge and, under George H.W. Bush, led the Drug Enforcement Administration and was the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Villanueva is the only sheriff in the county’s recent history, Bonner said, “who has no effective relationship with the Board of Supervisors,” adding that Villanueva “has gone out of his way to alienate and even insult supervisors.”

He criticized Villanueva’s response to a recent ambush shooting of two deputies, saying it’s “not what one would expect from a mature law enforcement leader” and calling Villanueva’s baiting of Lakers star LeBron James to contribute to the reward to find the attacker “ridiculous.”

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After Bonner’s statement, Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl said they supported the call for the sheriff to step down. Both have been highly critical of the sheriff in the past.

Bonner also said Villanueva had done little to enforce a policy he issued to prohibit deputy cliques within the department and had resisted providing information to county inspector general Max Huntsman — even indicating the department would be investigating Huntsman himself.

Commissioners Priscilla Ocen and Casimiro Tolentino said they supported Bonner’s statements, and Ocen asked that a newly established committee draft a resolution of no confidence in the sheriff.

“I am very surprised to hear what is a very eloquent statement, and I agree with it,” Ocen said.

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Commissioners Patricia Giggans and Xavier Thompson also praised Bonner’s move.

“I really want to express my respect for commissioner Bonner for articulating a very tough position to take,” Giggans said. “He’s kind of launched a challenge to the rest of us.”

In a statement, the department said the commission is playing politics.

“The fact this motion is even being considered, particularly when two members of our department are recovering from a life-threatening ambush, is morally repugnant and emblematic of the political animosity of the politically appointed commission,” said Lt. John Satterfield, a spokesman for the department. “It is becoming painfully obvious this commission is acting in retaliation against the sheriff for his efforts in investigating potential criminal conduct from county officials and for challenging the legality of subpoenaing the sheriff himself versus the LASD.”

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Since taking office in 2018, Villanueva has clashed repeatedly with civilian overseers and the Board of Supervisors, who have accused him of rehiring officials with tainted backgrounds and unraveling policing reforms instituted after a massive corruption scandal that brought criminal convictions against former Sheriff Lee Baca and other commanders.

The sheriff has pushed back on criticism, saying he believes the reforms have hampered the department and that he is responding to concerns from rank-and-file deputies.

The last few days have brought more controversy, with the county’s Office of Inspector General investigating incidents for possible violations of freedom of the press.

After two deputies were shot in an attack in Compton last Saturday, the department arrested a public radio reporter in a move that sparked widespread outrage. The department offered a narrative of the incident that was refuted by videos the reporter had recorded on her phone.

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During Thursday’s meeting, Huntsman said he believed the department had made false claims about the incident and that Josie Huang of KPCC and LAist had clearly identified herself as a reporter. Huntsman also raised concerns about the department’s conduct at a news conference last Friday where deputies in riot gear corralled attendees from a public parking lot. Huntsman said that the department’s assertion that it had removed the public from the parking lot of a business at the request of a manager was “likely to be false.”

“Video evidence and witness accounts indicates that the event took place in a parking lot that belongs to the [county] department of probation and is open to the public,” he said.

In addition, a longtime Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman posted tweets about the attack on the deputies that employed racist stereotypes in reference to a reward for information leading to the arrest of the shooter. Satterfield on Thursday said she had been removed as a spokeswoman.

Kuehl said she strongly supported the call for Villanueva’s resignation, holding that he has done nothing about deputy cliques within the department and that the county pays out millions of dollars in response to claims of excessive force by deputies.

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“He is really a rogue sheriff,” she said. “It is really important for this sheriff to understand that his behavior, his violation of any of the common rules that govern a law enforcement agency, is the greatest threat to public safety.”

Ridley-Thomas also said it was time for the sheriff to resign.

“Like the members of the Civilian Oversight Commission, I remain troubled by the Sheriff’s conduct and the way he has interfered with advancing reform and enhancing accountability,” he said in a statement.

In written statements, County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said Bonner’s remark had taken “courage” and Supervisor Hilda Solis said that the discussion to call for the sheriff’s resignation speaks to the commission’s concern over the sheriff’s disregard for subpoenas.

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Prominent local activists said they supported the call for Villanueva’s resignation.

Najee Ali, an activist at the forefront of recent South L.A. protests to condemn the recent killing of 29-year-old Dijon Kizzee by Sheriff’s Department deputies, said the commissioners’ move had taken too long.

“This sheriff is clearly way in over his head, and so far we’ve seen leadership that’s been unethical, lacks integrity and without any type of moral compass,” he said. “The use of force against innocent protesters, as well as protesters having a simple press conference and being surrounded by deputies in riot gear, sends a message of intimidation and harassment that Villanueva is affirming and giving his blessing to.”

Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles, called the motion encouraging.

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“Alex Villanueva has brazenly refused to be held accountable, he’s refused to investigate even the most extreme accusations of corruption, including the presence of gangs within the Sheriff’s Department,” she said. “We’re happy that some of the commissioners have spoken up, but [they] are under the illusions that he’s actually going to resign.”

Others have been calling for Villanueva’s resignation for some time. In July, the union that represents the father of Andres Guardado and dozens of other labor unions and advocacy groups argued the sheriff mishandled the investigation into the killing of the 18-year-old, who was fatally shot five times in the back by a deputy.


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