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Editorial: The Sheriff Villanueva-style tradition of service is no service to the public

A man in a khaki-colored uniform with black tie and a sheriff's badge against a backdrop of lights
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in the Hall of Justice on Aug. 12, 2020.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

It is axiomatic: A law enforcement officer’s job is to enforce the law. Some sheriffs elected in conservative counties across the U.S. have turned that basic assignment on its head and declared themselves the ultimate arbiters of which laws count and should be enforced and which do not and should not, under their own personal interpretations of the Constitution, without regard to any decisions made by legislators or courts.

Should we add to the roster of these so-called constitutional sheriffs the chief elected law enforcement officer of the bluest large county in the nation?

It would seem so. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva appears to see himself as the law in his town. He has defied the lawful subpoenas of the county’s duly authorized sheriff’s oversight commission, before showing up on the appointed day an hour early only to disappear before he was called to testify, so that he could not be accused of actually respecting the commissioners’ authority. He organized an off-the-books investigative unit to look into his political rivals. He sent deputies to patrol Venice Beach, a neighborhood under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Police Department, so that he could make political statements about the homelessness situation there and declare city authorities incompetent.

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He made clear early on that his deputies would not enforce L.A. County’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for entering indoor businesses, not that anyone ever asked him to or that there would be any practical way for them to do it.

In a sit-down interview, the sheriff unloaded on, well, just about everyone — but mostly this newspaper.

But he is indeed expected to supervise the county’s separate mandate that all of its employees, including sheriff’s deputies, get the shot.

Villanueva said he wouldn’t do that either.

In that sense he is in the same camp as Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, who describes himself and other sheriffs as “the last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach.” Such overreach includes, apparently, stopping the spread of a fatal and extremely contagious disease.

Villanueva, being independently elected, is one of only three L.A. County department chiefs with fairly clear direct authority over his own forces (the others are the assessor and the district attorney). So he may well be able to resist the vaccine mandate adopted by the Board of Supervisors in August that calls on him to discipline and ultimately dismiss any employee without a valid exemption who fails to comply.

If he were a responsible leader, Villanueva would do more than just get the shot himself, which he said he has done.

He’d remind his deputies that COVID-19 is serious business, and in the last year has killed far more officers nationwide than assaults in the line of duty. He’d remind them that they are sworn not merely to enforce the law but also to protect the public, and that includes the people they meet while on patrol in unincorporated county areas and in the dozens of cities that they police under contract, where they come face-to-face with people involved in serious traffic collisions and people who have witnessed or survived crimes. He’d remind them that unlike city police, they have direct contact with arrested and sentenced people arriving and staying in the county jails, where conditions amplify and quickly spread infections. He’d remind them that they, perhaps more than any other employee category, are expected to model responsible behavior in order to instill respect for the badge, the uniform and the law.

Among other things, L.A. County’s top lawman wants to make it easier for gun owners to carry concealed weapons.

But Villanueva has done none of those things. Instead, he argues that it is the mandate itself, and not deputies’ failure to comply, or the disease that has taken so many lives, or the nonsense about “alternative treatments” such as ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine, or his own grandstanding and flouting of lawful oversight, that constitutes an “imminent threat to public safety.”

His explanation is that many of his senior-most deputies already have taken early retirement (is that not a statement about his leadership as well?) and that many more are filing workers’ comp claims, and that the mandate — which, again, he has power to enforce — will cause a “mass exodus” that leaves his department unable to do its duty. Villanueva asserts he could lose 44% of his force as a result of the mandate, based on an unverified “projection.” And therefore he will ignore it.

He may be outsmarting himself. Losing all those deputies at once would indeed be bad news for L.A. County, yet it would create some opportunities for a Board of Supervisors increasingly impatient with its lawman’s lawlessness. The board is working to create a care-based public safety infrastructure that emphasizes alternatives to incarceration, but it has so far balked at the prospect of downsizing the Sheriff’s Department to reallocate funding to its new programs. By telling his deputies that they need not get their shots, and daring the supervisors to take action, he may end up doing their job for them.


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