Opinion: L.A. voters are clueless about how to elect a great sheriff. Here’s why

Some L.A. County voters now regret putting Sheriff Alex Villanueva in office.
(Los Angeles Times)

Over the course of nearly 16 years, Los Angeles County voters elected and kept reelecting Sheriff Lee Baca, who was ultimately sentenced to three years in federal prison for his role in obstructing an FBI investigation into abuse of county jail inmates. Still free pending appeal, Baca was recently implicated in a bribery scheme.

After Baca resigned in 2014 voters elected Jim McDonnell, but they threw him out after just one term in favor of Alex Villanueva.

Now, many of the voters who elected him are having buyer’s remorse. Villanueva won support from progressives who liked his Democratic Party affiliation and his promise to boot U.S. immigration officials from county jails. But some voters apparently tuned out his vow to bring back deputies whom McDonnell had fired for misconduct and now worry that the department may be drifting backward toward its former unaccountability.


It all demands a question: Why are L.A. voters so clueless when it comes to electing sheriffs?

The answer requires a backward look at more than a century’s worth of elections.

During the tenure of its first few sheriffs, Los Angeles County literally was the Wild West. The men elected to the office had to deal with cattle rustlers, shootouts and gunfights.

They also, in those early days, had to deal with political free-for-alls in which they sought partisan support from political party leaders — and also, importantly, from influential members of the county Board of Supervisors.

That long history of political reliance on the supervisors is often forgotten. These days, Los Angeles County sheriffs, including Villanueva, like to talk up their independence and their allegiance to no one but voters. But the Board of Supervisors has played an integral role in selecting most of the sheriffs since at least since 1914, when the board tried to exert a power play, failed, but then emerged triumphant.

In that election, most supervisors supported a candidate named William Hammel, but voters rejected their choice and opted for former Sheriff John C. Cline. The supes were not amused. Their board chairman responded by suing Cline for fixing traffic tickets, and a judge threw the sheriff out of office.

That allowed the board to appoint William I. Traeger to fill the empty position. When he retired, in the middle of a term, the board appointed his handpicked successor Eugene Biscailuz — who later stepped down and recommended that the board pick Peter Pitchess. Pitchess did the same with Sherman Block.

That’s how every Los Angeles County sheriff got the job for 77 years: by stepping down midterm to allow the board to appoint someone who then had the incumbency advantage come election time. Although the sheriff is officially an elected office, in reality the decision was made by agreement between the outgoing sheriff and the supervisors. Voters were given little to do but ratify the choices every four years until the next resignation and board appointment.

Consequently, L.A. County’s electorate has very little experience choosing from among viable and competent sheriff’s candidates. There is only a limited legacy of substantive countywide debate over what qualities we need in a sheriff — what temperament, what experience, what policies. Voters may know that the sheriff runs the jail and patrols unincorporated county areas, plus more than 40 small and medium cities under contract. But the sheriff and his department historically have gotten less scrutiny than even the non-elected Los Angeles police chief.

The succession tradition unraveled when Baca went rogue and challenged Block. His move might have failed, had Block not died days before the election in 1998. Some supervisors campaigned for Block anyway, in order to preserve their traditional power to appoint a new sheriff. But voters at least had the savvy to pick the living candidate over the dead one.

After elections, though, voters rarely pay their sheriffs much attention absent some embarrassment or scandal. And despite a run of scandals, Baca was reelected every four years until 2014, when he resigned under fire ahead of the election. The board’s appointed successor, John Scott, did not run to keep the job, so the L.A. County sheriff’s election that year was the first in a century with no incumbent living or dead.

Voters had counted on McDonnell to sweep out the mismanagement and corrupt practices that flourished under Baca. But McDonnell failed to make a strong case during his reelection that he had done so, and Villanueva’s victory last year marked the first time a living incumbent L.A. County sheriff was defeated since Cline’s 1914 victory over Hammel.

This is a still-new phenomenon for Los Angeles County voters in sheriff’s elections — real options, real policy debates, real consequences. Voters are still warming up to their new responsibilities.

But we’re not alone in our cluelessness. Consider Maricopa County, Ariz., about an hour east of the state line. Voters there elected Joe Arpaio as their sheriff six times despite, or perhaps because of, his racial profiling, his jail tent city, his illegal-immigration posses, his birther allegations against President Obama, and on and on. They finally said “enough” only after Arpaio’s 2014 criminal conviction for contempt of court.

Now 87 and armed with a pardon from President Trump, Arpaio has announced that he’s running again. He’s got a shot, which may say something more about the ability of any voters anywhere to wisely select a law enforcement leader than it does about a sheriff candidate’s fitness for office.

Robert Greene is an editorial writer for The Times.