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Editorial: Alex Villanueva isn’t L.A. County’s only sheriff problem. Let’s rethink the job entirely

A woman and a man in a sheriff's uniform walk together.
Actor Stephen Dorff plays Los Angeles County Sheriff Bill Hollister in the 2020 Fox series “Deputy.” The fictional sheriff was neither elected nor appointed, getting his job due to the inumbent’s death and an obscure section of the county charter.
(Boris Martin / Fox)

If we don’t trust one another to elect a good sheriff, and we don’t trust anyone else to appoint a good sheriff, and we don’t trust anyone to oversee or remove the sheriff, what’s left?

There was an answer, of sorts, just about a year ago, with the brief tenure of (made for TV) Los Angeles County Sheriff Bill Hollister, a part Dirty Harry, part Lone Ranger deputy’s deputy for the thin sliver of 2020 that preceded lockdowns, anti-police-brutality protests and bogus claims of election fraud. In the Fox series “Deputy,” the elected sheriff dies, triggering an obscure passage in the 170-year-old Los Angeles County charter that hands the office to “the longest-serving member of his mounted posse” until the next election. Hollister suddenly and unexpectedly is granted the top job not by the voters, because that would involve politics, and not by the Board of Supervisors, because that would make him beholden to politicians, but by act of God. He’s sheriff by immaculate selection.

There’s no such clause in the real-world county charter (although there is a real-life sheriff’s mounted posse), so Los Angeles County is left to grapple with how best to select and remove a sheriff. It’s a hot topic because of the controversial first half-term of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant who defeated the incumbent in 2018. Villanueva has battled with the Civilian Oversight Commission, which called on him to resign, Inspector General Max Huntsman, who recently wrote a 17-page report detailing the department’s “unlawful conduct,” and the Board of Supervisors, which asked how to change the office of sheriff from elected to appointed and how a sheriff might be removed before the next regularly scheduled election.

County Counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva delivered his report to the board in late January, and none of it was particularly surprising because the options have been discussed at length in recent months. Changing from an elected to an appointed sheriff would require California voters to amend the state Constitution and L.A. County voters to amend the (real) county charter. There are four removal options: voter recall, removal by the Board of Supervisors (which also would require a county charter amendment), a misconduct allegation by a grand jury followed by a trial (roughly equivalent to an action that removed Los Angeles County Sheriff John C. Cline 100 years ago), or a “quo warranto” action challenging the sheriff’s qualifications to hold the office.

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The board correctly did not take any immediate action against Villanueva because the question was not how to get rid of him, personally, despite the urging of many members of the public who submitted comments. Any action to remove an elected official should take time and serious consideration. Reversing the decision of voters should be neither easy nor quick.

Besides, the question about how to curb a misbehaving sheriff is greater than simply how to alter appointment or removal procedures. State Sen. Scott Wiener has introduced a bill to allow anyone to run for sheriff, regardless of whether that person has law enforcement credentials. That might run afoul of fictional Sheriff Hollister’s personal code (“You don’t hand the job over to a judge or a lawyer,” his TV wife reminds him. “You send a lawman. Someone who’s actually done the work”). But it would return the law to the way it was before the late 1980s, when deputies unhappy with San Francisco’s revered but non-credentialed Sheriff Michael Hennessey pushed to limit who could run. The mere prospect of facing a popular non-lawman (or woman) might well make an incumbent sheriff more responsive to public demands.

L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has also raised the idea of replacing the sheriff’s patrol functions with a county police force, with a chief appointed much as mayors and city councils appoint police chiefs. There would still be an elected L.A. County sheriff, but the job would be limited to running the jails, much as it is in San Francisco.

Chief law enforcement officers really shouldn’t be elected at all, any more than military generals and admirals should, but no one ever said that moving away from elections means giving the appointing power to the Board of Supervisors (even though the board appointed three of the last seven sheriffs to fill vacancies after incumbents stepped down in the middle of their terms).

After the notorious Rodney King beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers in 1991, L.A. leaders established the Christopher Commission to study (among other things) better ways to appoint, oversee and remove chiefs. City voters eventually recalibrated the powers of the mayor, the council and the Police Commission through Proposition F, which stripped chiefs of their civil service protections and limited their terms.

Rethinking the L.A. County sheriff’s job is at least as big a task. There was a county reform commission at about the same time as the Christopher Commission, but its recommendations, while important, fell far short of the sweeping measures needed. A commission on jail violence presented more recommendations in 2012, but it too was limited in scope.

It’s time to finish the job, with a commission to recommend broad reinventions of county government, including the sheriff. Perhaps the voters, instead of electing a jail warden or a cop, should be electing a chief executive who in turn appoints a sheriff, subject to appropriate checks and balances.

Villanueva, by the way, voiced approval of the TV Sheriff Hollister, especially his policy of not working with federal immigration officials.

As for the fictional Hollister, inheritor of the sheriff’s office by divine providence, he ultimately decided to seek a full term the old-fashioned way.

“There’s 10 million people in this county,” he said in one of the final episodes. “Maybe it’s time for them to speak. Let the chips fall where they may.”

But he was spared the campaign. Not enough people were watching the show, which ended in March. In the end Hollister wasn’t ousted by his Board of Supervisors or his voters. He was canceled.

That works for TV. The real Los Angeles, however, will have to come up with some different solutions.


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