Editorial: The Sheriff Villanueva saga has taken yet another bizarre and disturbing turn

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 26, 2019 - - Sheriff Alex Villanueva, right, addresses the issue of Secret D
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, right, during the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission at the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Los Angeles on March 26.
(Los Angeles Times)

Maybe the phone call to Los Angeles County Counsel Mary Wickham the day before Easter, purporting to be from a Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant and threatening her with arrest for something to do with a grand jury subpoena supposedly issued in 2006, was just another phone scam. Maybe it was a coincidence that the name used by the caller belongs to a real sheriff’s sergeant who also serves on the board of one of the department’s employee unions, and maybe it was just happenstance that Sheriff Alex Villanueva has ramped up tensions with Wickham by publicly calling her out for her role in his fight with the Board of Supervisors over his reinstatements of deputies who were previously fired for cause.

But Wickham and the board were so rattled by the call and so concerned that it was designed to intimidate her that they called an extraordinary closed emergency meeting for the ostensible purpose of responding to a “threat to public services.”

In any event, the proper response from Villanueva would have been to immediately issue a statement that he would never countenance any intimidation of that sort. He didn’t. Typical.

Villanueva has demonstrated a talent for needlessly exacerbating tensions when he could instead defuse them with a touch of humility.

A Sheriff’s Department spokesman issued a statement that detectives “stand ready to launch a full assessment of this potential threat.” But there was no emphatic statement from the sheriff of condemnation. Villanueva has demonstrated a talent for needlessly exacerbating tensions when he could instead defuse them with a touch of humility and by setting down the very large chip he carries on his shoulder.

In one public meeting he casually branded the inspector general and the lawyers on his team “sharks.” In an interview with the Times he said Wickham had “gone rogue” in challenging his authority to unilaterally settle wrongful-termination lawsuits by reinstating fired deputies.

It’s unlikely — but then fewer things now seem unlikely under this singular sheriff — that Villanueva actually ordered a sheriff’s sergeant to intimidate the county counsel. But for both good and bad, members of the rank and file have felt newly empowered under Villanueva, who has criticized previous efforts to impose discipline on employees and to curb violence against jail inmates. The sheriff bears responsibility for the actions of his deputies.

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The Sheriff’s Department has a sordid history of intimidation tactics that well predates Villanueva’s tenure as sheriff. In 2011 under Lee Baca, deputies notoriously approached an FBI agent outside her home in an attempt to bully her into backing off of an investigation.

And tension between the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors over the role of county counsel is likewise nothing new. Villanueva’s predecessor, Jim McDonnell, battled the board over his quest to hire his own lawyers, outside the county counsel’s authority. The odd structure of desultory checks and balances between the board and its counsel, on one side, and the independently elected sheriff on the other, breeds dysfunction and conflict.

The best way for each side to press forward its case is with a measure of empathy and good manners. The board and Villanueva appear fated to fight each other for some time to come, in court and in public. That fight need not descend to intimidation, and it need not get dangerous.

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