Editorial: Villanueva is the best advertisement for muscular sheriff oversight

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks during a media open house at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles in 2019.
(Los Angeles Times)
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The Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and Inspector Gen. Max Huntsman would have enough work on their plates if all they did was review the statements and actions by Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his deputies over just the last week.

They could take up the shocking arrest and physical assault of KPCC reporter Josie Huang, who video evidence shows was merely doing her job and not interfering with deputies as they were detaining a man Saturday night. They could look into the claim (also refuted by video evidence) that Huang failed to identify herself as a reporter, or that she lacked proper media credentials, or that deputies could not be expected to have heard of KPCC, which is among the region’s leading news organizations and regularly covers the sheriff, public safety and criminal justice in Los Angeles. They could examine Villanueva’s bizarre claim that Huang somehow crossed the line from journalism to “activism” as she recorded the deputies, or his implication that any person reporting on-scene on sheriff activities needs a press pass issued by the department. The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t get to decide who is and who is not eligible to report on its activities.

They could ask Villanueva about his inaccurate statement that KPCC reported falsely on an earlier incident involving sheriff’s deputies — not whether KPCC indeed did such a report (it didn’t), but where the sheriff gets off determining what news is or is not legitimate, and how that gives him authority to determine which reporters may or may not cover his department.


They could take up the outrageously racist (and sophomoric) tweets by a department media representative, Deputy Juanita Navarro-Suarez, touting a reward for information regarding the shooting that same evening of two deputies, and they might then remind Villanueva and the public that the last sheriff dismissed his chief of staff for racist jokes made not even in public but in private emails. Years before. At his former agency. That’s how seriously expressions of racism by law enforcement should be taken, not just in the current climate of tension but always.

If the commission and the inspector general want to expand the scope of their queries a couple more weeks, they can look into why the body of Dijon Kizzee was left on the street for several hours — despite a county ordinance outlining proper treatment of the bodies (and the families) of the deceased. Kizzee had been stopped by deputies while he was on his bike for a supposed vehicle code violation, then was shot dead as he ran from them; the department alleges that he was shot after reaching for a weapon that he’d dropped.

And of course they could look into Kizzee’s killing, and the killing of Andres Guardado, and too many other incidents and outrages to summarize here.

In fact, the inspector general and the Civilian Oversight Commission already are looking into each of those things, and the commission has subpoenaed Villanueva (under power granted first by the Board of Supervisors and then, in March, by the voters) to come and answer questions.

But Villanueva has refused to appear and too often refuses even to send a subordinate.

Oversight of elected sheriffs is a tricky business, because by tradition and to some extent by law they answer to voters alone. But the commission and the inspector general can spotlight the sheriff’s failures and misdeeds and call him to account, even if they lack the power to change his behavior or remove him from office.

Villanueva’s failure to cooperate is the best advertisement for even more muscular civilian oversight — for example, the power to impeach a sheriff, or to appoint (and remove) rather than elect him.


Failing that, Villanueva is fast becoming, we are sad to say, the best advertisement for the radical, unwise, yet (because of his performance) understandable desire expressed by many protesters: to defund and abolish law enforcement. Surely Villanueva won’t force Los Angeles County to consider that. Will he?