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Editorial: Hey, sheriff and supervisors, knock off your squabbling. People are dying out here

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in January 2019.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in January 2019 regarding the controversial reinstatement of a deputy. The relationship between the sheriff and the board has been chilly ever since then.
(Los Angeles Times)

An urgent note to Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors: Knock it off. Now.

Along with the rest of the world, L.A. is struggling to keep up with a historic infection that threatens to outstrip the capacity of our medical system and has already sickened thousands of us in the county. The normal patterns of life are on hold, businesses and jobs are disappearing and an air of anxiety and fear hovers over all of us. We rely on our elected officials — especially those with direct responsibility over public health and safety — to work in concert. The last thing we need is a public spat among the very people upon whom we most rely in an emergency.

Yet that’s what we’re getting. After displaying a confidence-building and spirit-boosting level of leadership, responsiveness and teamwork for a couple of weeks, the sheriff and the board began squabbling over turf. Among other things, they’re fighting over a proposal to remove the sheriff as head of the county’s emergency operations center — a change that’s been under consideration for months.

But now is not the time to fight. Quit whining about who started it or whether the other guy or group is making something out of nothing. We don’t have time for that. Grow up. Lead.

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The sheriff is responsible for public safety, and the board would be well-served by acknowledging Villanueva’s forward-looking efforts to reduce the jail population to limit its possible role as a disease vector — an initiative that other jurisdictions soon followed. He worked with the county’s police departments and other criminal justice agencies to limit unnecessary arrests and to reduce the number of pretrial detainees who were locked up. It was the right move at the right time, even if it has not yet gone far enough and the jail remains too densely packed.

Nevertheless, the board’s decision to study further jail reductions need not be seen as a turf grab, as Villanueva suggests. After all, the supervisors and the sheriff are expected to work together.

In another point of friction, the sheriff announced that gun stores were not essential services and would be closed, but then he was contradicted by the county counsel. We’re not interested in hearing about who failed to consult with whom, or when. Just fix it. Get on the same page. Give the public a consistent, legally defensible and properly informed message.

County public health Director Barbara Ferrer has been a guiding light during the epidemic — thoughtful, candid, calm. And thank goodness, because county government has the leading role in dealing with public health at the ground level, even more than cities, and more directly than the state or the federal government. Among other things, the county employs the epidemiologists who determine the sources of COVID-19‘s spread, makes and enforces public health orders such as business closures (as do some cities) and, at least as important, keeps the public informed of the facts at a time when fear and falsehoods abound.

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During an emergency such as this one, public health and public safety are paramount and there is no reason for them to be at odds. Nor is there any excuse for the supervisors, to whom Ferrer reports, or the sheriff to snipe at each other. So one more time: Knock it off.


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