It may be too early to tell how Sheriff Alex Villanueva will perform over the next four years of his term in office. But if recent actions taken by the county’s top lawman are any indication of what to expect, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
More than a few of the significant strides made in reforming a department once plagued by inept managers, corrupt deputies and abusive jailors are being set aside, with sheriff’s officials fired for behavior unbecoming an officer of the law apparently now being welcomed back with open arms by Villanueva himself.
The former sheriff’s lieutenant and political newcomer who upset reform-minded Sheriff Jim McDonnell in November says he believes in change — only change back to the way things used to be, when deputies could still beat up their spouses, stalk their exes, drive drunk and violate department policies with impunity.
Villanueva’s plans to establish what he somewhat insultingly calls a “truth and reconciliation” committee, a name shamelessly misappropriated from a commission formed to exact justice for victims of human rights abuses at the hands of police in South Africa with the end of apartheid, was the first indication that taking care of the troops — not seeking justice for people actually harmed by violent deputies — came first on the new sheriff’s radical agenda.
It’s been widely reported that Villanueva, over the strenuous objections of the Board of Supervisors, has rehired two deputies, one fired for violating policies related to domestic violence, the other for using unreasonable force and failing to use de-escalation tactics in relation to an encounter with a suspect. The Los Angeles Times reported that at least four other deputies were also reinstated by Villanueva, and that the sheriff was reviewing 68 other cases of deputies let go under McDonnell’s watch.
“The sheriff has been very clear in indicating that all Los Angeles County Sheriff’s employees will be afforded due process,” sheriff’s spokesman Cpt. Darren Harris responded to the Times in a statement.
To that end, Villanueva has been working at having his underlings kill, or “inactivate” existing investigations into other alleged deputy misconduct.
As the Times recently reported, of the 45 investigations inactivated in the first two months of 2019 “a handful involve criminal allegations such as child abuse, domestic violence and having sexual relations with an inmate.” The paper cited a report recently released by Rodrigo A. Castro-Silva, the interim leader of the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General.
“The inspector general also noted that other changes to employee discipline have been made in recent months, including cases in which the department moved to fire deputies for misconduct — including brandishing a weapon while intoxicated and fraternizing with a member of a criminal street gang — before entering into settlements that allowed the deputies to keep their jobs and serve days of suspension instead,” the Times reported.
“Jaw-dropping” is how Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission member Hernán Vera described the report. “To have such a large number of inactivations is — literally — to cover the public’s eyes on these matters before the truth comes out. It is the exact opposite of transparency,” said Vera. By virtue of being an elected official, Villanueva can do as he pleases, and answers to no one, at least not yet.
It was roughly seven years ago that some of the worst corruption inside the department was coming to light. Two years after that, incumbent Sheriff Lee Baca stepped down as he came under further criminal scrutiny and was ultimately convicted of federal obstruction charges in connection with an inmate abuse scandal which saw Baca, his deputy sheriff, as well as a number of lower ranking deputies convicted. Most have already served their time. Baca is currently still appealing his conviction. A former appointed police chief in Long Beach, McDonnell sat on the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence which ultimately chastised the department’s management under Baca and brought attention to conditions inside the county’s jails.
In mid-2012, Baca was testifying before the citizens’ panel, which was comprised of a number of retired federal judges. When asked by a commission member how he should be held accountable for the problems in the jails, a defiant Baca said simply, “Don’t elect me.”
Given Baca is presently looking at serving three years in federal prison, in part because of his coddling of wayward deputies, that was clearly only a partially correct answer.
Perhaps one day during his term Villanueva will have to answer that same kind of question from a similar board about the problem deputies he’s reinstated during his time in charge. Or maybe those same deputies who were given a second chance will finally straighten up and fly right. Anything’s possible, but only time will tell. n