Column: Deputy gangs, bluster, bullying. L.A. sheriff candidates line up to end the debacle

In the late 1990s, I went on a nighttime ride-along with two deputies in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and saw the kind of behavior that has been a stain on the department for decades.

As we approached a boy who was riding his bike in East L.A., the deputy in the passenger seat unholstered his firearm and pointed the gun at the boy through the windshield of our moving vehicle. The deputies pulled over, stopped the kid, questioned him and let him go.

The deputies told me gang members were often on bikes, and that a deputy on patrol in South Gate had recently been shot and killed by a man on a bike. So they had to be on high alert, they said.

The officers also kept aiming a beam of light at vehicles and running their license plates through records. When I asked what that was about, they said a car had been reported stolen and they had to be on the lookout for the vehicle and thief.

That might have been true, but it was an example of how the deputies see a world in which everyone is a suspect. And if they acted like this in the presence of a journalist, I wondered what it might be like when they were on their own.

I shared this story one recent morning with my companion at a Long Beach coffee shop.

“I was that kid, once upon a time, who got a gun pointed at me by police,” said Robert Luna, the retired Long Beach police chief who grew up in East L.A. and is now running for sheriff. “In that culture … you use the excuse that this is the way you fight crime, and this is the way you keep people safe.”

Luna said he knew as a kid that he wanted to be a cop despite, and partly because, of what he saw with his own eyes. The good and the bad.

When I wrote recently about the disastrous reign of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Luna reached out to ask if I would meet him at Grounds Bakery & Café in Long Beach and hear about how he intends to transform the department if he’s elected. We sat outside.

“It’s embarrassing,” Luna said of the way the Sheriff’s Department operates under Villanueva. “We in law enforcement have always been looked at suspiciously, because of all the authority we have.” And bad policing only deepens the divide.

Luna said if he’s sheriff, he’ll recruit smarter and let everyone know it’s a new day for the department.

“Right now, it’s a culture of us versus them, and policing doesn’t work without cooperation and the consent of a community,” Luna said. “That’s what Villanueva’s missing. He doesn’t understand you have to collaborate with partners and work with people all across the board.”

Luna is one of eight challengers, and he was endorsed by The Times. He’s had a few of his own critics on occasion over the years. Civil liberties advocates went after Long Beach police for a texting app that erased evidence potentially useful to defense attorney. A small group of Black Lives Matter activists protested when Luna announced his candidacy.

Luna told me he sees criticism as a reason to look in the mirror and reassess policy. He joined other law enforcement officials around the country to study reforms in the wake of controversial police shootings, and he said he worked in Long Beach to reduce officer-involved shootings and use of force.

But this election is, more than anything, a referendum on whether Villanueva is fit to serve any longer. If voters are fed up, Anne Irwin, of Smart Justice California, told The Times, Luna, LAX Police Chief Cecil Rhambo and sheriff’s lieutenant Eric Strong are the strongest challengers.

“They have all pledged support for smart justice reform,” Irwin said. “They have all pledged to try to repair some of the damage that Villanueva has done to the department, particularly the culture [of] the department.”

Let’s not forget that four years ago, Villanueva was the one making the reform pledges. But in a department that was badly in need of a professional upgrade, for the sake of deputies and the community, he’s further degraded the operation.

A police chief gestures at a podium
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva faces numerous challengers who say the department's culture must change. (Nick Agro/For The Times)

He’s been an apologist for thuggish behavior in an agency with rogue cops characterized as members of a deputy gang, he’s feuded with supervisors trying to reign him in, resisted civilian oversight and lashed out at critics.

A Times investigation last year echoed what I saw on my ride-along, identifying years of bicycle stops by deputies going back many years. Just since 2017, The Times found, 44,000 stops were made, 70% of them involved Latino cyclists and searches for illegal items came up empty more than 90% of the time.

Rhambo told me that if he’s elected, he’ll work with rather than against agencies investigating the Sheriff’s Department’s rogue cops. He reminded me that after leaving the Sheriff’s Department in 2014, he testified against Sheriff Lee Baca, who went to prison for interfering in an investigation into the abuse of inmates and for the coverups surrounding them.

“If I’m fortunate enough to be elected sheriff, you’re going to see aggressive action against deputy gangs,” said Rhambo, citing the tens of millions of tax dollars paid by the county in lawsuits involving an alleged secret society of tattooed deputies who glorify aggressive policing.

Rhambo said violent interaction is but a small part of the job, and he thinks most deputies in the department understand that. He said he’s going to root out the rogues, work more closely with community groups and recruit a new generation of deputies who can help establish a new, more professional culture.

Strong told The Times he’d go after deputy gangs, shut down the Men’s Central dungeon, support greater investment in services and “sustainable healing solutions.” He’s got the backing of some progressives, and Knock LA offered a qualified endorsement, saying Strong is “the best way to move toward a future where police violence is reduced.”

It’s not easy to drive out incumbents with huge name recognition, and if he takes just 51% of the vote in Tuesday’s primary, Villanueva will get another four years.

This is a case, though, where you have to consider the reason for the name recognition.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.