Oversight Panel Calls on LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva to Resign

In this Sept. 17, 2020 file photo, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva comments on the investigation of the shooting of two deputies during a news conference in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department watchdog group voted unanimously Thursday to demand Sheriff Alex Villanueva resign immediately, saying his obstruction of accountability and reform efforts and his inability to rid the department of deputy gangs has shut the door on cordial oversight. 

Since being elected on a reform platform in 2018, Villanueva embraced a recalcitrant posture, sparking feuds with county leaders over budget and transparency issues, removing constitutional policing advisers and attempting to delegitimize efforts to hold his department accountable, said the LA County Civilian Oversight Commission resolution.

Villanueva repeatedly ignored requests to attend COC meetings and has impeded county Inspector General Max Huntsman’s audits of LASD police shooting investigations, actions that further undermine community trust in the department, the COC said.

“Sheriff Villanueva’s inability to ensure transparent, thorough and independent investigations of deputy-involved shootings erodes public trust in the process and the validity of the conclusions reached as a result of such investigations,” the 4-page resolution said.    

An LASD spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the COC’s vote. 

Villanueva has stated previously the COC lacks any authority to issue mandates to LASD since they’re unelected appointees of the LA County Board of Supervisors, which also cannot directly control the department or fire its leader. 

The sheriff has also said COC members have unreported conflicts of interest due to their connections with community organizations that advocate for victims of police violence.

The commissioners’ action Thursday is the latest in a long power struggle between county officials and the law enforcement leader who arrived in office on the promise of enacting reforms and rebuilding trust with county residents after decades of police violence. 

The COC voted in May to sue Villanueva after he defied their subpoena to testify on his plan to protect incarcerated people against Covid-19 infection in county jails. The case is pending in LA County Superior Court.

During the virtual meeting, commissioners initially backed a resolution avoiding a resignation demand and instead expressing “grave concerns” over Villanueva’s actions, a move meant to leave open the possibility of diplomacy.

But commissioners, including chair Lael Rubin, were dissatisfied with the resolution’s lack of teeth and said a stronger message would demonstrate a seriousness in wanting to see major reforms at the LASD.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought and I don’t think he has any intention of making things better,” Rubin said. “I can do nothing else but urge that this commission vote that it’s our position that he should resign.”

Commissioner Robert Bonner, a former federal judge and commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agreed. 

“I think it’s in the best interest of residents and of the county of Los Angeles that Sheriff Villanueva resign,” Bonner said.

A prepared statement shared by LASD officer Shawn DuBusky said Villanueva recently met with Rubin, but not the full COC, to discuss the oversight process and that department members frequently attend COC meetings.

The statement defended Villanueva’s relationship with the COC.

“This meritless politically motivated attack is unsupported by real facts and remains a shameless repeat of the same spectacle played out on September 17, 2020,” the statement said. “Despite this political theater, Sheriff Villanueva will continue being the most accessible and transparent sheriff in the history of Los Angeles County.”

In the COC’s meeting last month, Bonner — a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration — decried Villanueva’s attitude toward county officials and made the first motion calling for his resignation.

Commissioner Priscilla Ocen said Villanueva cannot be excused for his comments defending police violence against protesters and journalists, including the recent arrest of KPCC reporter Josie Huang.

Villanueva said previously Huang failed to identify herself as a reporter, a claim that was disproven by video evidence of her arrest, and that she crossed from journalism to “activism” when she recorded officers arresting a protester. 

Huntsman has told commissioners LASD is impeding his investigation into Huang’s arrest.

“To say we have grave concerns is an understatement,” Ocen said Thursday. “I don’t have confidence in his leadership.”

Members of the public expressed outrage with Villanueva and told the commission that operating as if the sheriff is an earnest participant in COC proceedings is a fruitless endeavor.

“The door is closed; it’s shut, it’s locked,” Andres Kwon, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the commission. “In fact, there is no door at all. Sheriff Villanueva has built a wall.” 

The commissioners’ resolution blasts Villanueva for failing to fully investigate and clear out deputy gangs from department ranks and for blocking Huntsman’s investigation of the secret groups.

“Members of these cliques/gangs subvert the chain of command, promote violence against residents and colleagues, celebrate Nazi symbols and have cost the county millions of dollars to settle claims related to misconduct by alleged gang members,” the resolution said.

Huntsman told commissioners Thursday he has seen no evidence Villanueva is taking seriously the work of clamping down on deputy gangs, which include the Banditos, the 3000 Boys, the Regulators and the Lynwood Vikings.

Villanueva said in August he won’t block officers from forming or joining a clique or gang because it alleviates the mental toll from police work, but that he won’t tolerate when those groups are linked to misconduct against the public or other officers.

The resolution also says Villanueva blocked or impeded speedy implementation of department reforms such as police-worn cameras, and rehired officers who were previously fired for misconduct or domestic violence.

On Oct. 5, a California judge ruled that Villanueva acted outside his authority when he rehired officer Caren Carl Mandoyan, a move that sparked tension with county leaders early in the sheriff’s tenure.

Mandoyan has admitted to having ties to the Grim Reapers officer gang out of the LASD South Los Angeles station, according to the LA Times.

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