Column: Sheriff Villanueva just showed the world the petty emptiness behind his bluster
With his burly build, close-cropped hair, eternal smirk and laconic voice, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has spent his first term trying to present himself as a lonely hero thanklessly taking on societal ills.
He certainly plays the role by consistently blasting the weak-willed politicians and yellow-bellied “wokeism” that, he recently declared at a forum with other county sheriffs, are keeping Los Angeles from being “liveable.”
There’s just one giant stumbling block that keeps Villanueva from even starting his tough-on-crime mission.
This is a man whose job as head of the largest sheriff’s department in the United States is supposed to be about protecting L.A. County from bad hombres. Instead, Villanueva has spent most of his time defending his department with the bluster of a lesser John Wayne character and a skin thinner than tulle.
This year alone, he sent the L.A. County Board of Supervisors a cease-and-desist letter demanding that they not refer to the deputy gangs that plague his department as, well, gangs, because the term is supposedly racist and demeans the more than 50% of his deputies who are Latino. He is threatening to pull his forces from patrolling L.A. Metro because the agency doesn’t want to give him an exclusive contract.
He spent most of an hourlong conversation with me last month railing against unflattering photos of him published by this paper and the supposedly excessive number of Black division chiefs in the Sheriff’s Department’s past. He then claimed in a social media post that he was refusing to meet with the L.A. Times editorial board to seek their endorsement … right around the time he was meeting with them. (The board didn’t endorse him).
None of those moves put a single criminal behind bars or improved public safety — you know, the job that a majority of L.A. County voters asked Villanueva to do when they elected him in 2018. Instead, we’ve seen an administration of tantrums unworthy of a preschooler denied their “Peppa Pig.” And he just went through his worst one yet.
Full Coverage: Sheriff’s Department cover-up of incident where deputy knelt on inmate’s head
L.A. County sheriff’s officials attempted to cover up an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of an inmate, according to records reviewed by The Times.
On Tuesday, he held a press conference to allege that my Times colleague Alene Tchekmedyian had received “stolen property” and was now a subject in a criminal investigation by his department. The supposed contraband she possessed was courthouse video that showed a deputy kneeling on the head of an inmate for three minutes after the inmate assaulted him. Sources told Tchekmedyian that the footage was suppressed for months because of Villanueva’s concern that it might bring “negative light” on his embattled department.
The sheriff had first dismissed Tchekmedyian’s story as much ado about nothing, noting that the deputy in question was relieved of duty after a criminal investigation.
But then, he accused The Times of publishing the investigation to coincide with the kickoff for his reelection campaign. He ordered an internal review into how the video got into the hands of The Times — which, if you remember, supposedly wasn’t a big deal.
His thoughts changed yet again at the press conference. There, he cast the situation as a grand conspiracy involving Tchekmedyian, political rival Eli Vera and L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman to take down Villanueva — and thus, public safety.
Before puzzled reporters, Villanueva flashed photos of the three, arrows connecting each of them, and used a long stick to point directly at Tchekmedyian, as if he were Charlie Day in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” explaining Pepe Silvia.
The investigation into the video, the sheriff promised, will involve other law enforcement agencies and “will be handed over to the appropriate prosecutorial agencies so they make a determination.”
Villanueva must have thought that blasting a reporter who has published damning article after damning article about him would be a slam-dunk. Instead, he threw up an air ball worse than anything Russell Westbrook could ever offer.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva sounds off about vaccines, unflattering Times photos and Black Lives Matter, but says he relates to being a ‘Mexican nerd.’
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis — whom Villanueva once suggested was a “malinche,” a sexist term in Mexican Spanish for a treasonous woman — pledged to ask California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to look into Villanueva’s “pattern of unconscionable and dangerous actions.” Journalist organizations condemned the attack on Tchekmedyian as a dangerous assault on the 1st Amendment. Broadcast, print and online publications across the country covered the mess in prime time.
The blowback was so harsh that Villanueva walked back his allegation against Tchekmedyian. Michael Jackson never moonwalked as fast as the sheriff slid back on his comments.
“I must clarify at no time today did I state an LA Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation,” he tweeted. Never mind that he alleged exactly that just hours earlier. Villanueva missed his mark so badly that even his loud-mouthed campaign manager, Javier Gonzalez — who has long trolled Tchekmedyian on Twitter — has been as silent as Marcel Marceau.
Villanueva exposed himself nationally as someone more rattled than a can of WD-40. He’s the Incredible Shrinking Lawman, his threats against enemies becoming wilder and less effective and no doubt about to increase in ineptitude as a June 7 primary looms.
Didn’t I call it?
People warned me when I began my own modest coverage of Villanueva to watch my back — that he was scary and petty enough to retaliate against me. I expected to encounter a goon when the two of us finally met in person. Instead, I summed him up after shaking his hand and feeling his weak-salsa grip. He’s a classic bully — a wounded soul, à la Richard Nixon, who has no time to reflect on his own sins because he needs to lash out at the cruel world that keeps him down.
I’d feel bad for him if he didn’t wield so much power or target opponents so ruthlessly and laughably.
I understand and appreciate the concern people have for Tchekmedyian. But this entire episode reminds me of an exchange that the legendary labor reporter John Reed had with Eugene V. Debs. The socialist politician had just been arrested after giving an antiwar speech at the height of World War I, and Reed asked Debs whether he feared opponents might lynch him.
“I know that so long as I keep my eye on them, they won’t dare to do anything,” Debs responded. “As a rule, they’re cowardly curs, anyway. Keep your eye right on them, that’s all.”
That’s what we’re all doing with Villanueva, more than ever.
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