Column: L.A. County’s sheriff leans on his Latino identity. Does he exemplify our worst traits?

Alex Villanueva gestures with his right hand in front of a microphone
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva addresses vaccine mandates at a November news conference.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

When I walked into the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles last week for an interview with L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the deputy manning the metal detector was a Latina. The receptionist who called Villanueva’s office to let him know I had arrived 10 minutes early was a Latina. Her desk mate was a Latino.

In the lobby were life-sized banners plugging careers at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department that featured a smiling Villanueva. “Hometown heroes needed,” it read. “Are you in?”

The security guy who walked me down a hallway to the Hall of Justice’s media room, where I would wait for Villanueva, was a burly Chicano in suit and tie. The deputy who greeted me was Sheriff’s Information Bureau Capt. Lorena Rodriguez. She initially talked to me in Spanish until realizing we were both pochos — Americanized Mexicans.

In a world where major government and private institutions vow to hire more people of color but rarely follow through, Villanueva’s department walks the diversity walk with a swagger. Fifty-four percent of his employees are Latinos, in a county where Latinos make up 49% of the population. It’s a significant stat with far-reaching implications for today and the future of L.A. County and beyond.

That’s only part of the reason why I had requested this meeting, though.


Last October, I wrote that Villanueva’s decision to allow his deputies to wear cowboy hats while on patrol was “in the same vein of reactionary lawmen like Bull Connor ... who loved to flex their conservative bona fides by using Stetsons.”

Alex Villanueva, wearing a cowboy hat, walks with others while touring the Veterans Row homeless encampment
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, middle, tours the Veterans Row homeless encampment in November in West L.A.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Soon after, during one of his weekly Facebook Live chats, Villanueva called me a “dishonest soul” and a “vendido” — a “sellout” in Spanish — who created a “false narrative” with a “woke agenda” to attack him.

I responded with a column that called him the vendido for presiding over a department chockablock with scandals in recent years that inevitably involved Latinos. Shootings where Latino deputies killed Latinos. Programs that overwhelmingly ticketed Latino cyclists and stopped Latino motorists. Deputy gangs with names like the Banditos.

Villanueva’s people never followed up with my request to go buy Stetsons with their boss. But he did grant me an hour so we could talk about the latinidad of his administration, a pillar of his reelection campaign and one he’s wise to lean on to weather the ceaseless criticism fired at him by activists and politicians since assuming office in 2018.

The atmosphere was understandably awkward when Villanueva finally arrived. We settled into comfy couches in a small office. Capt. Rodriguez sat nearby with a recorder and began to silently take notes. Clad in a crisp, tan, long-sleeved shirt with no tie but each collar point decorated with five stars that outlined a polygon, Villanueva started with small talk. Didn’t I write a column, ¡Ask a Mexican! for the Orange County Register?


Wrong paper, I responded.


“Well,” he finally said, “here we are.”

Say what you will about him, Villanueva knows where the political winds of Latinos blow.

Alex Villanueva smiles and shakes a woman's hand
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva greets an attendee at a rally in April 2021 marking National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

A recent survey of Latino residents in L.A. County commissioned by the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles and the California Community Foundation found that 78% of them think police budgets should stay the same or increase, and that only 24% feel law enforcement does “not often” treat Latinos badly.

“Doesn’t surprise me at all,” Villanueva said.

“They walk 2,000 miles to get here. They come here to work, and send money home. They don’t come here to smoke dope and complain about why isn’t government [giving] them free stuff. That’s anathema to their point of concept.

“But the crowd that’s here — that has been here too long?” he continued, referring to second- and third-generation Latinos. “[They’re] kinda — I guess, I don’t know — spoiled to that mentality that the government owes something to them. Whereas the newly arrived in the first generation, you’re like ‘No, you got to do it all yourself.’”

This is the Villanueva that emerged during our chat: a curt Latino populist — a rancho libertarian personified — who proudly stated near the end of our talk that his job is to “defend the weak from the oppressors.” The enemy of Latinos, in his mind: corrupt politicians, leftist activists, cholos — and definitely not law enforcement.

If you talk to the average Latino out there, the hardworking people that are pushing two jobs and just trying to get food on the table, their kids and education, they care about work, they care about faith [and] community. And they don’t have a tolerance for what the woke elite like to think.

— — Alex Villanueva


Because how could Latinos oppose a department that looks like them, headed by one of them — scandals be damned?

“The overwhelming majority will never see the inside of a jail or a radio car or have anything to do with the criminal justice system, unless they’re victims,” Villanueva said. “It’s about their only interface. But who does the media pay all the attention to? The ones that are doing all the screaming, crying about injustices and justice for this or justice for that. Where a lot of [Latinos] say, ‘Well, if you actually follow the law, there’d never be an issue.’”

Wait, was I talking to Villanueva, or my older cousins?

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His approach — often brash, pugnacious and controversial — has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump. Villanueva said he got “hate mail” from his administration after L.A. County Jail booted ICE agents from its facilities.

But no, el sheriff is more like a half-Puerto Rican Richard Nixon. Both expressed scorn for so-called elites and think of themselves as champions of the “silent majority,” a phrase Villanueva actually invoked to describe the law enforcement-supporting Latinos he says outnumber those who continually protest.

He and Nixon masterfully executed once-unthinkable electoral victories by playing on the anger of voters during an era of tumult. But the two held a propensity for feeling unappreciated and thus kept a long memory of petty grievance. That resentment undercuts a sharp mind underestimated by opponents, a mind that could actually do good if its trollish id didn’t always feel there were scores to settle.

It’s an Achilles’ heel exposed again and again the more and more Villanueva talked.

Though he was engaged throughout our conversation, Villanueva’s overall countenance was that of a high schooler forced to sit in the principal’s office. He rarely smiled or smirked, as he so often does during his Facebook Live sessions or news conferences. A Squidward to my SpongeBob SquarePants.


I had to reach out to shake his hand at the beginning — and his grip wasn’t memorable. Villanueva did get animated, though, when I asked whether he believed the extravagant conspiracy theory offered by supporters and endorsed by their man: that the haters are after L.A. County’s sheriff because he’s Latino.

“Oh, hell, yeah!” he said. “If you look at the amount of accomplishments that we’ve done, even with all the adversities we’ve faced, we’ve done more in three years than probably in the last quarter-century of the department’s history.”

Alex Villanueva speaks in front of a microphone
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announces a task force targeting wage theft in February 2021.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Villanueva ticked off a list of achievements including a more diverse force, tackling homelessness, campaigns against wage theft, bilingual outreach efforts and continued defense of undocumented residents — and then complained few in the media or political class acknowledged any of that. He portrayed himself as a brave defender of Latinos when he was a sergeant and lieutenant pointing out the discriminatory hiring of his then-bosses.

“And I was castigated for pointing [that] out,” Villanueva said. “The fact [is] that we’re opening the doors and breaking all the glass ceilings for Latinos and Latinas.”

But what good is having a Latino on top, I wondered, when a lot of the recent scandals in his department are self-created — and involve Latinos?


An L.A. Times investigation found L.A. County sheriff’s deputies stop Latino bicyclists at higher rates

Nov. 30, 2021

Villanueva is sensitive about this, because on his own, he brought up an explosive Times investigation last year that revealed Latinos made up 70% of cyclists that deputies stopped even though the group makes up about half of the population of L.A. County.

“Deputies know who’s who,” he insisted. “The panadero who’s going to work at 3:00 in the morning with his lunch bag? No, [deputies] know who they are. Same thing with the guy clad with Spandex on a $10,000 bike, or the little girl with the tassels.”

But the “kid dressed like a gangster” allegedly looking into cars? “Those are the ones that get all the attention,” he said, “and they’re overwhelmingly either Latino or Black.”

Profiling certain Latinos? Got it.

Last month, Villanueva sent a cease-and-desist letter to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors demanding it stop referring to the deputy gangs that have plagued the Sheriff’s Department for generations as, well, gangs. Such language, he says, is anti-Latino.

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“It’s a racist, derogatory term for an entire organization that is majority Latino,” Villanueva reiterated. “These groups have been in existence for 50 years. Did they run this with [former L.A. County Sheriff Jim] McDonnell as sheriff?

“They” had, I said.

Since the 1990s. There was nothing anti-Latino about using “deputy gangs” at all. A federal judge even referred to one, the Vikings, as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” back when the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department looked very different from how it looks today.

A tattoo of a skull with a rifle and a military-style helmet surrounded by flames on the right leg of a sheriff’s deputy
An Executioners’ tattoo on an L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy. The Executioners is a gang-like group from the Compton sheriff’s station.
(John Sweeney)

But Villanueva insisted that the label was a “PR campaign to discredit the department.”

He allowed that some of them do get in trouble, and even brought up two notorious incidents: a brawl at a 2018 department party at Kennedy Hall in East L.A. that left two deputies unconscious, and a 2010 Christmas party at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello that led to the dismissal of seven deputies.

“Most of it involved when the group got together,” Villanueva said. “And they mix with people who are not part of the group, alcohol-fueled, and somebody said this-that, or somebody looked the wrong way at somebody’s girlfriend. Fight breaks out — but nothing really different than any other social group that you can think of.”

“All that, what you described ... that’s what gangs do,” I countered. “What’s the difference?”

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“Difference is gang members commit crime as their primary purpose,” Villanueva shot back. “They have rap sheets of crimes that they do, and the activities that they do [are] in furtherance of their gang,” while the “rap sheet of a deputy with a [gang] tattoo — it’s going to have a bunch of commendations.”

Uh, OK.

Villanueva was as unapologetic as a working-class tío. Even when I suggested near the end of our conversation that he’s in a position where people want him to act as a role model, and he thus shouldn’t be such a trash talker, he wouldn’t budge.

“When it’s a white political establishment, the Latino role models of L.A. have their hat in hand and just don’t want to be trampled,” he said, “and they’re going to play to get along with everybody else because they wanted that next rung on the political ladder. That’s no leadership there at all.”


Después de intercambiar opiniones en los medios de comunicación con el columnista del Times Gustavo Arellano, el sheriff Alex Villanueva se sienta a hablar sobre los latinos y su administración.

March 28, 2022

He agreed with my suggestion that Latino supporters think of him as someone sin pelos en la lengua — without hairs on the tongue, a Mexican Spanish idiom for a straight shooter worth admiring.

“If you talk to the average Latino out there, the hardworking people that are pushing two jobs and just trying to get food on the table, their kids and education, they care about work, they care about faith [and] community,” he said. “And they don’t have a tolerance for what the woke elite like to think is important.”

By that point, though, I wasn’t thinking about Villanueva’s relationship with Latinos anymore. I was instead struck by how he had continuously exemplified one of the worst traits of the Latino experience.

More on that in part dos of my interview.

Read part 2

Sitting down with Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva taps into a toxic vein of resentment politics.