LA County Supervisors Will Explore Options For Removing Sheriff

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva comments on the investigation of the shooting of two deputies during a news conference Sept. 17 at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A divided Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to look into options for removing Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the law enforcement leader who had promised to reform a department fraught with misconduct and police gang scandals. 

Since being elected in 2018, Villanueva has sparked feuds with county leaders over budget issues, over his decision to rehire officers previously fired for misconduct and for impeding oversight of his department’s investigations of fatal shootings by its officers.

Villanueva implemented some significant reforms, including reducing the county’s ties to federal immigration enforcement policy and installing body-worn cameras on some officers, but he also fired constitional policing advisors brought under the former sheriff to review police misconduct and use of force cases for potential disciplinary action. Villanueva selected new investigators.

The sheriff has said the county’s inspector general and police oversight panel are politically motivated and that its members have conflicts of interest because they engage with police accountability groups.

Accountability over his department is the duty of county voters, Villanueva has said, adding that voters who disapprove of his actions can either initiate a recall process or vote him out when he’s up for reelection in 2022.

Addressing the board Tuesday before the vote, Villanueva said “false information” has obscured his record in office and said supervisors should heed this week’s advice from President-elect Joe Biden and “work together” with the sheriff, not demonize him.

“We are following through on transparency,” Villanueva told the board. “All we ask for is a fair and objective process.”

But the board voted 3–2 to approve Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl’s motion directing officials to examine all necessary changes to county law to remove or impeach Villanueva.

“The need for mechanisms to hold an elected sheriff accountable is painfully obvious today, at a time when communities across the county are reeling from violence — including much-too-frequent deputy involved shootings,” the motion said. 

Gone are the “wild west” days of the 19th century when sheriffs acted with impunity and rivaled bandits in their flouting of the law, Ridley-Thomas said during Tuesday’s meeting. 

LA County requires a governance model fit for the current era: one where Villanueva can’t evade accountability by proclaiming himself accountable only to voters every four years, Ridley-Thomas said.

“We hold a popularity contest every four years for the most important law enforcement office in the county,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We have the illusion of democracy.”

The motion calls for exploring whether supervisors can create their own “municipal force” and appoint a county sheriff, a model ostensibly designed to give the board direct oversight and authority over county police.

David A. Carrillo, executive director of the California Constitution Center, said in a statement the state constitution is clear on county officials’ authority over the sheriff.

“As a charter county, Los Angeles has express constitutional power to amend its charter to provide removal procedures for elected county officers like its sheriff,” Carrillo said. “But the state constitution requires sheriffs to be elected — not appointed — and a board of supervisors cannot interfere with a sheriff’s independent investigative function.”

Ridley-Thomas, who won his election this month to the LA City Council, said the motion isn’t seeking to “supplant” residents’ ability to elect or vote out officials.

Before voting against the measure Tuesday, Supervisors Janice Hahn, a Democrat, and Kathryn Barger, a Republican, expressed concern that the board’s action would do just that: “undermine” both democracy and the electorate’s long history of choosing its sheriff.

“I don’t think it’s our job to remove an elected official,” Hahn told her colleagues, adding that the county’s 10 million residents won’t like officials taking away their ability to vote out or reelect Villanueva.

Barger said that while she doesn’t agree with all of Villanueva’s decisions, she prefers to continue seeking compliance from the sheriff.

“We cannot make long term policy decisions based on short term personalities,” Barger said.

An amendment by Supervisor Hilda Solis, who voted in favor of the motion, will push release of the report to Jan. 5, 2021 when Supervisor-elect and current state senator Holly Mitchell can review it as a member of the county’s first all-female board.

Villanueva did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the vote.

Andres Kwon, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said in a statement he supports the board’s action.

“Sheriff Villanueva represents a clear and present danger to civil liberties,” Kwon said. “Today’s motion by the board is a step forward in validating the community’s call for Villanueva’s resignation and a charter amendment that would endow the board with the power to impeach and remove a sheriff for violating public trust.”

The board’s action Tuesday comes one month after the county’s Civilian Oversight Commission voted unanimously to demand Villanueva’s resignation.

Members of commission said last month the sheriff’s obstruction of accountability and reform efforts and his inability to rid the department of deputy gangs have impeded standard oversight. 

Earlier this year, after Villanueva refused to personally update the Civilian Oversight Commission on measures to protect the county jail population from Covid-19, the sheriff then ignored a subpoena from the commission, which later sued to enforce it.

The matter remains pending in LA County Superior Court.

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