LOS ANGELES (CN) — Members of the Los Angeles County police watchdog group on Thursday called for Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s resignation over his department’s lack of transparency on fatal police shootings and other issues, marking the latest escalation in a power struggle between county officials and the increasingly combative law enforcement leader.
Villanueva has repeatedly clashed with the LA County Civilian Oversight Commission and the county Board of Supervisors over budgetary issues, the availability of officer-worn cameras and over the sheriff’s decision to rehire officers who were previously fired for misconduct.
The COC voted in May to sue Villanueva after he defied their subpoena to testify on measures to protect incarcerated people against Covid-19 infection in county jails. The case is pending in LA County Superior Court.
Civilian Oversight Commissioners have also pressed Villanueva to seriously clamp down on secret deputy gangs within the ranks of the LA County Sheriff’s Department.
Villanueva is investigating instances of LASD gang member violence but has also downplayed the issue as a normal element of society and one he’ll only shut down if gangs mistreat or kill members of the public or the department.
Commissioners have also slammed Villanueva’s refusal to cooperate with county Inspector General Max Huntsman on fatal police shooting probes, especially ones where LASD gangs are alleged to have been involved, such as the shooting of 18-year-old Andres Guardado in June.
The issue of assessing Villanueva’s performance in office came to head at the COC’s meeting Thursday when commissioners said the sheriff’s actions demonstrate that he’s unfit to lead the department.
Commissioner Robert Bonner, a former federal fudge and commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said Villanueva has gone out of his way to “alienate and even insult” supervisors who request answers from him regarding department policy.
“In a time when reforms are being demanded, and are long overdue, he’s generally dragged his feet,” Bonner said of Villanueva.
In a surprising move from the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bonner called on Villanueva to resign.
“It’s with great reluctance that I call on Sheriff Villanueva to resign. I don’t take this step lightly,” said Bonner. “It’s apparent that he’s demonstrated on multiple occasions he lacks the judgment to be the sheriff and that he’s unable to provide the leadership needed at the sheriff’s department.”
“The sheriff’s department does not have the leader it deserves,” Commissioner Patti Giggans said at Thursday’s meeting.
“Villanueva has proven that he cannot effectively lead this department,” Commissioner Priscilla Ocen said Thursday on Twitter.
The commission will take up the vote of no confidence at its next meeting.
Villanueva did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two LA County supervisors, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, voiced their support of the commission’s criticisms and called on the sheriff to resign Thursday evening.
Commissioners also approved a resolution condemning the apparent ambush shooting of two LASD officers on Sept. 12.
The officers, who were shot while sitting in their squad car, were critically injured but are expected to survive. One officer was released from the hospital and started intensive rehabilitation, Villanueva said Wednesday.
Villanueva has defended the violent arrest of KPCC reporter Josie Huang, who was reporting on the shooting of both officers as a credentialed reporter when officers pinned her to the ground and arrested her.
The sheriff said Huang failed to identify herself as a reporter, a claim that was disproven by video evidence of the arrest, and that she crossed from journalism to “activism” when she recorded officers arresting a protester.
Huntsman told commissioners LASD is impeding his investigation into Huang’s arrest and other issues including recent fatal police shootings.
“I don’t believe we’re going to be able to investigate effectively all those instances if we don’t get compliance with the law by the sheriff’s department,” Huntsman said, adding that his work is aided by the availability of video of the arrest from members of the public.
“We cannot shirk pointing out these deficiencies, these transgressions or when the sheriff’s department misses the mark,” Giggans said.
The LA Times editorial board said Thursday that Villanueva’s handling of the probe into Huang’s arrest and his refusal to collaborate fully with Huntsman is the strongest argument for why the COC should exist.
“Oversight of elected sheriffs is a tricky business, because by tradition and to some extent by law they answer to voters alone,” the board’s editorial said. “But the commission and the inspector general can spotlight the sheriff’s failures and misdeeds and call him to account, even if they lack the power to change his behavior or remove him from office.”
When asked about the commissioner’s comments Thursday at a press conference, Villanueva dismissed the suggestion that he should resign.
“They’re a political body appointed by the Board of Supervisors and they’re part of the echo chamber of the board,” Villanueva said of the COC. “There’s a fine line between watchdog and attack dog and they crossed that line a long time ago. I’m going to ignore it and continue serving the community.”
In a prepared statement, LASD slammed the COC’s decision to raise the issue at a time when the department is responding to wildfires, the coronavirus pandemic and the shooting of two of its officers.
“The fact this motion is even being considered, particularly when two members of our department are recovering from a life-threatening ambush, is morally repugnant and emblematic of the political animosity of the politically-appointed commission,” the statement said.
“It is becoming painfully obvious this commission is acting in retaliation against the sheriff for his efforts in investigating potential criminal conduct from county officials and for challenging the legality of subpoenaing the sheriff himself versus the LASD.”
Villanueva said at the press conference the reward for information leading to the arrest of the person who shot the two deputies has risen to nearly $620,000 and that a care fund for the injured officers stood at over $800,000.
Officials called the press conference to release additional details into the Aug. 31 fatal police shooting of Dijon Kizzee, a 29-year-old Black man, in South LA.
LASD Homicide Captain Kent Wagner told reporters officers spotted Kizzee riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the road and chased him after he fled.
Wagner said officers fatally shot Kizzee after a physical fight with him and after he dropped a piece of clothing that police say was concealing a weapon.
Villanueva painted the Westmont community where Kizzee was killed as plagued by high levels of gun violence and in need of a heavy police presence.
“The majority of residents there are upstanding, honest, law abiding citizens. But they’re surviving almost in a war zone,” Villanueva said. “This is not your average community across America. We’re trying to save lives, plain and simple. We’re not out there terrifying, or racially profiling.”