It’s simply not possible to review Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s first full year in office without talking about Caren Carl Mandoyan. Like it or not — and Villanueva now has ample reason not to like it — the two men’s stories are now inextricably linked.
Villanueva, of course, is the longtime sheriff’s lieutenant who was repeatedly passed up for promotion until he took his case to voters last year and shocked the political world with his defeat of incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
Mandoyan was a career deputy whose messy romantic breakup with a colleague resulted in serious disciplinary charges of domestic abuse, stalking and making false statements to internal investigators. McDonnell fired him in 2016.
To Villanueva, Mandoyan was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the sheriff’s discipline system. To Mandoyan, Villanueva was his ticket back into uniform. As Villanueva campaigned against McDonnell, Mandoyan served as the challenger’s driver, his advisor and his ambassador to the influential but often erratic deputies’ union. The union responded with an endorsement and a $1.32-million expenditure supporting him.
Even before Villanueva was sworn in late last year, he set Mandoyan’s reinstatement in motion. As 2019 began, Mandoyan had his badge back.
And it’s been a bumpy ride ever since. The Board of Supervisors sued to again oust Mandoyan and won a tentative victory, pending trial next year. Mandoyan sued the county, was rebuffed in court and sued again.
But the Mandoyan saga is not the most important narrative to emerge from Villanueva’s still-young tenure. The episode is merely a symbol of — and somewhat of a distraction from — a far more wide-reaching and disturbing shift at the Sheriff’s Department.
Villanueva campaigned as a progressive and appealed to left-leaning voters who were anxious to oust one of the few Republicans in elected office in L.A. in favor of a Democrat who promised to curb deportations of accused criminals passing through the county jails. But in fact, Villanueva’s driving principle has been to recalibrate the balance of power in law enforcement back toward rank-and-file deputies and away from exacting performance standards and accountability.
It’s an ominous about-face for the department.
In 2011, reports surfaced of systemic and violent abuse of jail inmates by deputies, committed on the watch of Sheriff Lee Baca. That year the Board of Supervisors convened a Citizens Commission on Jail Violence to look into the allegations. McDonnell was among the commission members.
The panel’s blistering report set forth a to-do list that included tougher and swifter discipline and sweeping changes to oversight.
Baca resigned and McDonnell was elected sheriff in 2014. He immediately set about implementing the jail commission’s recommendations.
But he made a series of management and policy blunders, and besides, he was a poor reelection campaigner. Villanueva’s upset victory paved the way not just for the return of Mandoyan — and, by the way, a number of other deputies who previously had been fired for cause — but for the rollback of the deputy performance standards that had so recently been toughened.
Villanueva put an end to discipline investigations of dozens of deputies and threw out the code of conduct that McDonnell had established. He ridiculed rules that reduced jail violence and called for the return of the metal flashlights that deputies once wielded as weapons. He belittled civilian watchdogs as “political appointees” and opened a criminal probe of the county’s inspector general.
As state and local governments have begun pushing back against what was once near-impunity for law enforcement officers — for example, in new laws that open up some police discipline records to the public and raise the standard for use of deadly force — under Villanueva the Sheriff’s Department is pushing back the other way, in favor of looser conduct rules.
Villanueva was aided in part by L.A.’s notoriously short civic attention span. A Los Angeles Magazine blog post, for example, asserted that he was the county’s first Latino sheriff in a century — a startling statement to make just four years after the end of Sheriff Lee Baca’s 15-year tenure. But the claim may have reflected the belief of many voters who are tuning in late to the long and troubled story of the department.
The fight over the department’s direction is fated to continue in 2020. Some of the very same activists who backed Villanueva are supporting a measure on the March 3 ballot to give the Civilian Oversight Commission subpoena power, greatly enhancing its authority over the sheriff. A proposal to go even further — to allow the Board of Supervisors to remove the sheriff — may yet come to voters. Mandoyan’s case may come to trial. This is no time to tune out.