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Op-Ed: Villanueva has unchecked power in the sheriff’s office. This can be fixed

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks at a press conference on March 29.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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Creating meaningful checks and balances for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office is long overdue. No official should have the unchecked power that is claimed by the sheriff. The way to fix this broken system is to amend the county charter.

Just last week, court-appointed monitors of the L.A. County jails filed a scathing report recounting how deputies under Sheriff Alex Villanueva continue to use excessive force against incarcerated people, including brutal punches to the head. Despite repeated efforts to identify reforms, the monitors concluded that “there has been little real change or progress in more than two years.”

Sadly, we’ve been here before — years of unfulfilled promises and continued brutality. The latest report is the 10th issued by court monitors since the 2015 settlement agreement in Rosas vs. Baca, a case that sought to address deputy violence tolerated under former Sheriff Leroy Baca, who was sentenced to time in federal prison.

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

July 25, 2021

Prior to the settlement and consent decree in the Rosas case, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors formed the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence in 2011 to address violence in the jails and recommend reforms of the sheriff’s department. The commission documented a pattern of excessive force and a culture of lax accountability. Based on its report and recommendations, the supervisors established the Office of the Inspector General. Thereafter, it created the Civilian Oversight Commission, and voters fortified the Civilian Oversight Commission with subpoena power in 2020.

Despite these steps, violations of the Rosas consent decree appear to have worsened under Villanueva, and little has been done to hold him and the sheriff’s office accountable.

Villanueva’s actions show that the county government structure is inadequate to counter a sheriff who is openly hostile to oversight. The Board of Supervisors, responsible for the health and safety of the public, needs greater mechanisms to rein in any sheriff who abuses power.

It is long past time to amend the county charter to provide that authority. Any reforms should at a minimum: create a process to allow removal of the sheriff for serious misconduct by a super-majority vote of the board; reinforce the board’s ability to guide policy making in the sheriff’s department; and establish permanent, independent civilian oversight.

To make this a reality, the board must act promptly to place the proposed charter amendment on the ballot. To get this issue before the voters in the November election, the process must be completed by early August. If the amendment is approved by voters, it is possible that the sheriff or law enforcement unions may challenge it, especially the provisions allowing for removal of the sheriff by the board. But this authority is appropriate and in line with the text of the California Constitution, state statutes and case law.

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

July 27, 2021

Sheriffs have great power, and a sheriff who abuses it has the potential to do tremendous harm. Neither elections every four years nor the theoretical possibility of an expensive recall vote can produce timely accountability and correction when the power of the sheriff’s office is abused.

For many reasons, including the limited transparency of law enforcement records, voters largely lack the detailed information needed to hold sheriffs accountable at the ballot box. Incumbent sheriffs are rarely voted out, and even if there were a change in leadership, accountability and oversight problems remain — as the history of the sheriff’s department makes all too clear.

We also need strong independent civilian oversight to be directly addressed in the county’s charter so that it cannot be eroded by future political leaders. The oversight authority of the Office of the Inspector General and the Civilian Oversight Commission should be memorialized in the county charter, along with subpoena authority and the resources to fulfill their functions.

We don’t need yet another study or blue-ribbon commission, nor can the supervisors wait for uncertain state reforms or another election cycle. Now is the time to act and advance charter amendments that can strengthen the county’s structure of checks and balances. Let’s not wait for more decades of reports that tell us what we already know.

Miriam Aroni Krinsky is a former federal prosecutor and served as executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law.

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