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Column: What in tarnation is going on with Southern California sheriffs and coronavirus?

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes talks in his office.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes talks to a reporter at his office in Santa Ana on Feb. 19, 2019.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

There are reasonable, respectful ways for politicians to oppose Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus shutdowns.

And then there’s the way Southern California’s sheriffs do it.

In November, the top lawmen in Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Orange and Los Angeles counties announced that they wouldn’t enforce a 10 p.m-to-5 a.m. curfew implemented to thwart a rise in coronavirus cases.

All said then that they’d rather take an educational rather than punitive approach to violators. But now that the governor has shut down in-person dining and severely limited businesses as cases hit record-breaking highs, some sheriffs are advocating insurrection.

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In my Orange County, Don Barnes said in a Dec. 5 news release that his department wouldn’t cite any maskless people or packed restaurants because public compliance with this latest state order “is a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement.” He also opined that for Newsom to expect O.C. deputies will serve as his personal snitch squad is “contradictory and disingenuous” because the governor keeps “criticizing law enforcement and taking away tools to do our jobs.”

East on the 91 Freeway in Riverside, Chad Bianco wasn’t as conciliatory.

In a Dec. 4 video better suited for Infowars than a public agency, the first-term sheriff blasted Newsom’s “dictatorial attitude” and derided stay-at-home orders as “flat-out ridiculous” because “the medical field is so split about this virus.” Therefore, Bianco proclaimed his department wouldn’t be blackmailed or bullied by the “hypocritical” Newsom to be “used as muscle” against the public if people violate coronavirus protocols.

The two make L.A.'s Xerox machine of bad news, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, look good on the coronavirus. On Tuesday, my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian broke the news that Villanueva knew about a massive, illegal house party in Palmdale yet allowed it to happen before his deputies swarmed in to arrest more than 100 people.

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But it’s Barnes and Bianco that corona-crazies now hail as heroes for their tough talk. If this were a western movie, the sheriffs would be Gary Cooper’s character in “High Noon” — lone men willing to take on evil as cowards hide — while Newsom would obviously be a foppish villain a la Hedley Lamarr in “Blazing Saddles.”

But the two should be shamed, not praised. They and their fellow sheriff resisters represent some of the worst offenders of the pandemic.

When we need collective sacrifice, they espouse selfishness. When we need law and order, they encourage anarchy by deciding which rules are valid and which aren’t. When we need officers who follow the policy recommendations of medical experts, they instead decide to become judge, jury and non-executor on subjects over which they have no knowledge whatsoever.

When we need Andy Griffith, Barnes and Bianco give us Barney Fife.

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Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco
(Riverside County Sheriff’s Department)

You cannot find two worse spokespeople against the shutdown than them.

I figured Bianco was going to justify his stance by citing a love of civil liberties more than espousing coronavirus trutherism when I requested an interview. But, no, his emailed responses showed Bianco graduated from the Scott Atlas college of dodgy science.

When I asked him to clarify what he meant about doctors being “split” on the coronavirus, Bianco responded, “If you seek information from more than one news source, these opinions are easy to find. Doctors and other medical professionals have differing opinions on benefits of masks, social distancing, and lockdowns.”

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It’s a weird thing to say, given Bianco himself urged Riverside County residents in his Dec. 4 video to “wear your mask and practice social distancing.”

Bianco doesn’t believe this lockdown “is going to be effective at all,” even though coronavirus rates fell the last time California saw such a similar closure. And then he got all epidemiologist, which I didn’t know they taught at sheriff school.

He wrote, “Not everyone is going to get the virus, and 99.8[%] of those who do, will get over it. Common sense would say we should be looking to identify and save that 0.2[%].”

The thing is, Sheriff, knowing whom the coronavirus will kill isn’t as easy as picking out a crook from a lineup because he’s wearing a grimy beanie and holding a bag with a dollar sign. The virus hits everyone, and can kill the healthy and infirm alike.

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Bianco should know: Two of his own deputies died of COVID-19 in April.

There’s also this: In Riverside County, the COVID-19 fatality rate right now for those who contract the disease is 1.2% — and its death rate per 100,000 places it ninth out of California’s 58 counties.

Bianco’s coronavirus truthiness is surprising. His department hasn’t faced many controversies over the last two years. And Bianco made national news over the summer when he and some of his deputies knelt during a Black Lives Matter rally in Riverside.

He told reporters then, “This is a huge divide, and the leaders of this have to work with us to make a difference.”

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If only he felt the same about leaders banding together to fight the coronavirus.

Yet Bianco is nowhere near as hypocritical in his stance as Barnes.

Since May, O.C.'s sheriff has proclaimed to anyone who’ll listen that he doesn’t run the “mask police” because his department would rather go after actual criminals. Now, he’s appearing on Fox News to claim Newsom’s lockdowns don’t stand “the constitutional test.”

Caring about the law of the land is rich coming from Barnes. Over his 31-year law career in Orange County, the Sheriff’s Department has careened from one corruption scandal to another. A federal jury found that one former boss, Brad Gates, acted with “reckless disregard” for the Constitution by allegedly issuing gun permits to political supporters; another, Michael Carona, spent time in federal prison for witness tampering.

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Barnes, meanwhile, was in the inner circle of his predecessor, Sandra Hutchens, when multiple convictions were overturned after public defender Scott Sanders discovered that deputies had procured illegal confessions from inmates through the use of jailhouse informants.

This year alone, O.C. deputies have been charged with stealing credit cards, mishandling evidence and repeatedly burglarizing a dead man’s home.

Barnes’ office didn’t return a request for comment.

In Hollywood’s version of the Old West, sheriffs were usually the good guys, the ones who brought order and justice and peace to towns in the midst of chaos. But Barnes, Bianco, Villanueva and others actually recall a stock character from a different genre, one they have updated for modern times.

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They’re the Keystone corona-Kops.

Except their tomfoolery endangers us all.


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