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LA’s New Sheriff Villanueva Continues to Betray his Campaign Promises

Last November when Alex Villanueva became Los Angeles County’s 33rd Sheriff, he did so with the widespread support of police and prison reformers. This week Los Angeles Magazine termed Villanueva “the Donald Trump of Los Angeles law enforcement”.

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (right).
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (right) at a graduation ceremony for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's in January., Kyle Grillot/LAist

Moderator’s Note: Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva oversees the largest sheriff’s department in the world, and the largest jail system in the country. 

In just the past two weeks:

1) On July 17th it was revealed a senior Sheriff's Department official quit over what she considered to be an "unethical" and "unprecedented" order from a top Villanueva aide to facilitate the reinstatement of a fired deputy and alter his disciplinary record.

2) On Monday, a $53 million civil settlement was announced in a suit filed on behalf of 60 women inmates who were subjected to degrading strip searches at the Century Regional Detention Facility. Villanueva, who was a lieutenant at the jail at the time, said he had no knowledge of the searches. But County lawyers said in a 2015 memo to plaintiff’s attorneys that Villanueva, and other lieutenants at the jail knew about the practices and procedures involving the strip searches. 

3) On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission condemned the “offensive and culturally insensitive Fort Apache logo” Sheriff Villanueva reinstated at his department's East Los Angeles Station and called for its immediate removal. The logo featured an image of a boot with a riot helmet.

4) Also on Tuesday the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to explore granting the county’s Office of Inspector General subpoena power to compel the Sheriff’s Department to provide information regarding secret societies of deputies who wear matching tattoos. Inspector General Max Huntsman said the Villanueva administration has repeatedly violated the county ordinance that governs his office’s authority to monitor the department. “Background checks for incoming deputies appear to have been radically scaled back and the administration has refused to allow us to monitor the hiring process and ignored our document requests,” Huntsman said.

Like many others from communities across Los Angeles County, I rooted for Alex Villanueva to bring progressive criminal justice reform and police accountability to the Sheriff’s office.  Several months into his tenure, it’s clear that he conned us all.

Leading up to the election, there were high hopes around Villaneuva’s platform: cutting ties with federal immigration authorities, promoting diversion programs to lower the county jail population, and opposing a $3.5 billion jail expansion to name a few. This platform sounded like a commitment to create a better relationship with communities of color, and put an end to many of the discriminatory law enforcement practices that unfairly target black and brown people.

But since taking office, it’s been a whiplash effect.

Villanueva quickly reversed course back to the corrupt and discriminatory policies of the past: he has rehired deputies fired for excessive force and alleged domestic violence; downplayed violent, racist deputy gangs in his office as “hazing gone amok,”; called the court-ordered reforms put in place to curb jail violence and abuse a “social experiment”; and he has failed to realize the promise of reforming immigration policies regarding cooperation with ICE.

Describing himself as a reformer, he pledged to get rid of corrupt managers and those who were promoted based on their connections rather than their accomplishments as peace officers. But less than two months into his role, he reinstated Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, an old crony of his who had been fired amid allegations of domestic abuse and stalking. The claims against Mandoyan were so egregious that not only the department, but also the Civil Service Commission County Appeals Board, agreed he should not be reinstated.

Instead of heeding the Board’s guidance, Villanueva focused on shaming the female survivor and questioning her credibility in order to reinstate his friend. As sheriff, Villanueva’s job is not only to set an example, but to ensure that his deputies respond appropriately to domestic violence and sexual assault. What kind of message is Villanueva sending to his deputies and the public he serves by reinstating a man with such egregious claims against him?

In less than a year, he has not only turned his back on many of his campaign promises he made to the communities he serves, he has regressed from where we were before he was in office — throwing out reforms made by previous sheriffs.

While he was auditioning for the job of sheriff, Villanueva said all the right things. He criticized the former sheriff and undersheriff for conviction charges stemming from a culture of violence by deputies against people incarcerated in prisons and the county jail — and the deplorable scheme by deputies to cover up their actions with false reports. But when he got the job, Villanueva called the court-ordered reforms put in place to stop jail violence a “social experiment” and then, used faulty statistics to characterize these deputies as the victims.

Los Angeles County needs a sheriff who is committed to ensuring deputies abide by laws that are set in stone to address jail violence.

It was much the same with his commitment on reforming immigration policies.

Villanueva’s rejection of ICE was one of his strongest campaign promises. He said immigrant families shouldn’t have to wonder if he’s here to protect them or deport them, committing to physically remove and bar ICE from all department property, including for purposes of transfers of individuals to ICE custody.

Yet, Villanueva still has policies in place where misdemeanor charges can trigger an inmate’s transfer to ICE for deportation.

The reality is, when local law enforcement cooperates with ICE in this manner, trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement is eroded, making us less safe. This erosion of trust leads to crimes going unreported and unsolved, and potentially dangerous individuals are never apprehended in the first place.

Alex Villanueva, many of us were rooting for you. You keep failing us and Los Angeles County demands better. If we don’t get it, we’ll demand better in the next election.

[Patrisse Cullors is co-founder of Black Lives Matter, founder of Dignity and Power Now and chair of Reform L.A. Jails.]