La Opinion Editorial: Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva, We ask you not to fail the Latino community

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has many options to try to restore the community trust in him. We call on him to take some necessary breathing room, review these complaints, and use his position to advocate for cooperation and conciliation in the County.

Villanueva culpó a la Junta de Supervisores por el retraso en la compra de cámaras.
Villanueva culpó a la Junta de Supervisores por el retraso en la compra de cámaras.
Foto: Aurelia Ventura / Impremedia/La Opinión

By La Opinión

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was surprisingly elected to his post on November 6, 2018 with 53% of the vote to then-incumbent Jim McDonnell’s 47%. It was the first time in 138 years that an incumbent sheriff lost an election.

La Opinion supported Villanueva’s candidacy.

Back then and in an interview, he defined his three priorities:  “Reforming LASD by cleaning the house, top to bottom, and raising standards across the board; rebuilding the organization around community policing principles, and restoring the lost trust between the community and the LASD, and within the LASD itself. ”

In some respects, he did just that. We are pleased that he has decided to prohibit the transfer of prisoners to the custody of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) without a criminal order. A civil immigration arrest warrant, or detainer, is no longer enough. This ban was temporarily in force since the beginning of the pandemic but is now permanent.

On the other hand, we must say that Villanueva has made errors of judgment that undermine the community’s trust in him.  This alarms us, and needs correction.

It is well known that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) is the largest county police agency in the country, with 9,000 officers patrolling nearly 200 cities and towns in Southern California and a budget of nearly $3.4 billion. And it runs one of the largest prison systems in the world.

Part of the conflict stems from the decision of the County Board of Supervisors, on August 4, to vote on an amendment to set aside 10% of the county’s unrestricted general funds – between $360 million and $490 million annually – for housing, alternatives to incarceration, mental health care and other social services.

This led to a severe public backlash from the Sheriff, politically aligning him against the Board.

The Sheriff faces a difficult situation, yes. We live in an increasingly violent society. On September 12, a gunman attempted in broad daylight to kill two Sheriff deputies. We hope that efforts to find the culprit and bring him to justice will be successful in short order.

At the same time, the attack and the investigation cannot prevent clarification of other issues that plague the community’s relationship with the Sheriff’s Department.

The Los Angeles Times has alleged that some sheriffs were operating what appeared to be more like criminal gangs, which was backed up by many in the public.

This caused a strong reaction at the national and state level. The Congressional Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee asked the Justice Department to investigate the groups, whom it characterized as “white supremacists” and “racists.”

Activists and civil rights organizations in California also expressed alarm.

One of the biggest concerns about what happens in LASD is related to the deaths, at the hands of its agents, of people ultimately found innocent, mainly from the African-American and Latino communities.

On June 18, Sheriff’s agents killed 18-year-old Andrés Guardado with gunshots to his back as he fled. The Department is still investigating this and other cases of possible unjustified use of force.

Dijon Kizzee, a 19-year-old boy, was riding his bicycle when Sheriff’s deputies wanted to speak to him because he was violating a highway code. He fled and allegedly dropped a weapon. He was shot 15 times in the back, according to the family’s lawyer.

In March, the parents of Eric Briceño, a grown man with serious mental problems, called the Sheriff for help in the middle of a crisis. Officers entered the room while he was sleeping, hit him when he was said to have resisted, choked him and attacked him with a taser. The son died of cardiopulmonary arrest, after screaming that he could not breathe. Now the parents are suing the Department.

In response to these and other deaths, massive protests erupted, many demonstrating at the entrance of the hospital where the two wounded officers were interned, and, according to the LASD, blocking the entry, something that infuriated Chief Villanueva (and rightly so).

But we are especially concerned and upset by the treatment received by the reporter Josie Huang from the KPCC radio station, who was covering that protest and who was arrested in the county jail and falsely accused when she was at the scene of the protests fulfilling her duty as a  reporter and wearing her credential.

We find it hard to believe that the police officers who arrested her did not know she was a reporter. If they did not know it at the beginning, they knew it immediately, because the reporter did not stop saying it out loudly.

But the conflicts that concern us do not end there.

We criticize the Department for launching a criminal investigation against Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman and his organization, for allegedly accessing the confidential personal files of LASD officers. As this is the watchdog agency that oversees the Department, any investigation should be independently conducted by the FBI or the California Attorney General.

As soon as he assumed his position, Villanueva rehired several individuals who had been away from the agency due to conduct problems during the tenure of his predecessor. And while this immediately made him popular among the ranks, it undermined the trust that the community must have in him personally for the entire law enforcement system to function properly.

Discontent stems in part from the fact that investigations are generally conducted by the same agency in which the agents involved work, instead of hiring independent investigators, in order to decrease any suspicion or complaints of favoritism and concealment of the truth.

It would then seem that when events such as those described occur, the members of the Department withdraw and maintain silence, defending themselves as if they were personally attacked by those seeking justice in each particular case.

Villanueva has to pay more attention to those problems that are plaguing his Department and that harm others, especially the Latino community. The direction taken by the LA Sheriff’s Department chief, elected directly by the voters including many Latinos, is crucial to the future of our area.

We understand that the Department and its boss feel under siege.

In May, the committee, invoking the subpoena powers granted in Measure R passed in March, subpoenaed the Sheriff to a session on the situation in prisons in the coronavirus era. Villanueva considered the summons a personal affront and did not appear. That was counterproductive and produced an adverse reaction.

We note repeated errors in judgment, which are not helped by the Sheriff’s relative inexperience in dealing with elected officials. Perhaps that is where the department’s deficit in political flexibility comes from.

The first victim in such a climate is the trust between the Department and the community. Undoubtedly morale among the rank-and-file suffers. And dialogue with the civil government, which is above the Sheriff, becomes eroded or even disappears.

Additionally, the county has had to pay out of court settlements for lawsuits related to the membership of Sheriff’s agents in a secret society and other incidents, $55 million since 1990 – and $21 million in the last 10 years, according to the LA Times.