Column: Is L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva rounding up a ‘posse’ of cowboys?
You’re L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, and you’re in trouble.
Multiple lawsuits against your deputies allege excessive force and wrongful deaths in encounters with civilians. L.A. County supervisors have openly talked about how to prematurely end your four-year term. One of your advisors and two subordinates plan to run for the sheriff’s seat in the next election. L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón wants nothing to do with you.
The public is tiring of your soft-hand approach to deputy gangs, and off-hands stance on disciplining deputies who don’t bother with masks during our coronavirus times.
So what do you do as the head of the largest sheriff’s unit in the United States? Enact reforms?
Nah. You announce that your guys and gals can now wear cowboy hats while on duty.
Villanueva, to put it lightly, loves his tejanas. He sports a sharp black one for ceremonial purposes, like riding on horseback in Cinco de Mayo parades or during the opening festivities for the Industry Hills Charity Pro Rodeo this past weekend. But his affection for them didn’t get much attention until this June, when Villanueva wore a floppy brown cowboy hat while law enforcement agencies raided illegal marijuana grows in the High Desert.
Sporting one makes sense in “Bonanza” country. But then Villanueva wore the same hat again a day later while strolling around Venice Beach’s homeless encampments. On a cloudy day.
I remember smirking when I saw photos from the scene. Who was he trying to be, I thought — John Wayne? Jason Aldean? Billy Crystal in “City Slickers”?
My bemusement tempered after learning Villanueva was a two-time cancer survivor who wanted to protect his face from the sun. As someone who lost their beloved mother to the damned disease, it ain’t no joke.
But it’s one thing to want to protect yourself from the elements, and quite another to tell your troops they deserve to be able to dress like you.
That’s what Villanueva did on Oct. 6, during one of his weekly social media question-and-answer sessions. Shortly after stating he wasn’t going to enforce an L.A. County mandate that requires all public employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine or risk losing their job, the first-term sheriff moved on to a more pressing query.
“Are cowboy hats approved by the whole department to wear?” he asked out loud, before raising his eyebrows and looking into the camera. “Yes, they are.”
Villanueva said the department had already picked “a winner”: a cream-colored Stetson-style hat that would be available for deputies by the end of the year.
“It looks pretty good,” he added, before remarking to no one in particular: “You’ll appreciate that.”
A department spokesperson quickly walked back Villanueva’s assertion, telling my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian that “the project remains in the approval process” and that the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs had yet to sign off on the move. But the union’s president, James Wheeler, told me in a statement that his group “is surprised to see the Sheriff or frankly anyone devoting time to this topic when rising violent crime, homelessness, and other serious issues plague our community.”
Villanueva’s critics were even less charitable.
“The cowboy hat says, ‘I’m a cowboy, I’ll do what I want,’” said Los Angeles County inspector general and frequent Villanueva critic Max Huntsman. “But that’s not how law enforcement should act. Los Angeles isn’t the Wild West anymore.”
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As someone whose father owns multiple types of cowboy hats — simple straw ones, others for daily use, and super-fancy felt Stetsons used only for weddings and funerals — but who couldn’t pull off a cowboy hat if you gave me a Winchester and a lasso, I so wanted to talk hats with Villanueva. But his spokesperson John Satterfield said the sheriff’s schedule was “extremely full.”
Instead, the department offered a statement that offered a window into the Villanueva way: When given the choice between facts and grandstanding, he loves to ride into the sunset with the latter.
It started off by saying “The cowboy hat is part of the rich history of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and has always been authorized headgear for our mounted posse personnel.” (Note the use of the word “posse.”)
Horseback patrols are now usually used on city streets for crowd control, not to chase after cattle rustlers, so why even use it except to hark back to the days of frontier justice?
Not only that, but Villanueva’s version of his department’s history is wrong.
According to “The Evolution of the LASD Male Uniform,” a fascinating paper published last year by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Museum, the first official department uniforms weren’t even formalized until 1932. While the study goes deep into all the noggin covers used by L.A. County deputies over the past 150-plus years — octagon-shaped uniform caps, broad-brimmed chapeaus like the one Canadian Mounties use, helmets, and more — there is no mention whatsoever of Stetsons.
Sure, sheriffs from Villanueva to Lee Baca to Sherman Block have worn them on special occasions. But the last sheriff to regularly wear a cowboy hat was Eugene Biscailuz, who served from the 1930s through the 1950s and was a descendent of Californios — you know, actual vaqueros, instead of pretend ones like Villanueva.
Villanueva’s statement confirmed that he has begun to wear cowboy hats “on a more regular basis” to protect his skin. That’s totally cool and understandable. But if he cares so much about honoring his predecessors, Villanueva would’ve known that the L.A. Sheriff’s Department already has an officially designated cancer cap.
Back in 1993, according to the Sheriff’s Museum, one Lt. Bob Osborne pushed his superiors to allow deputies to wear baseball caps “since [he] was very fair skinned and susceptible to sunburn, sun damage and skin cancer.”
Villanueva wasn’t lying when he claimed in his statement that “his wearing of the hat triggered calls from both inside and outside the Department to authorize a cowboy hat for daily use by all uniformed personnel.” The same day Villanueva proclaimed his Stetson directive, a Men’s Central Jail internal email addressed to the deputy “studs” working that evening concluded with the news that Villanueva “approved cowboy hats for patrol yeeha!!!”
Villanueva’s sartorial selection is in the same vein of reactionary lawmen like Bull Connor, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who loved to flex their conservative bona fides by using Stetsons.
Sheriffs in Southern California are turning out to be Keystone corona-Kops during the COVID-19 pandemic, failing to bring law and order to their counties.
In recent years, cowboy hats, like vaccine resistance, are now status symbols for deputies across Southern California — another way to own the libs. Riverside County, for instance, allowed the use of Stetsons in 2019, shortly after Sheriff Chad Bianco — a former member of far-right, anti-government Oath Keepers group — assumed office.
Huntsman, Villanueva’s official watchdog, pointed out that headgear is already part of the iconography of L.A. County’s sheriff’s deputy gangs. The Banditos’ mascot is a mustachioed skeleton with a giant sombrero. The helmet on top of a boot that’s the logo for the East L.A. sheriff’s station — tellingly nicknamed Fort Apache — was banned for years until Villanueva allowed its resurrection. The Cowboys gang’s official tattoo is that of a skull with — that’s right, pilgrim — a cowboy hat.
“If [Villanueva allowing the use of Stetsons] was the only crazy thing he had ever done, I’d say, fine, who cares?” Huntsman said. “But it’s not. A hat is a symbol of the ideas under it. No matter what he puts on, he’s not above the law.”
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