Editorial: Sheriff Alex Villanueva is out but leaves behind a deeply damaged department

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07: Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva talks with media, homeless advocates and local residents as he walked the Venice Boardwalk. He railed about the failures of local elected officials "to properly regulate public spaces" and said he'd like to see the boardwalk cleared of tents by the Fourth of July. Venice Boardwalk on Monday, June 7, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times).
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva walks the Venice Boardwalk, which is in a different agency's jurisdiction, on June 7, 2021. Voters defeated Villanueva in his quest for a second term. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

With all due respect and sincere congratulations to former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, who won the race for Los Angeles County sheriff, this election was never really about him.

It was about incumbent Alex Villanueva, a man who in his tumultuous four years as leader of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department has oscillated between goofy caricature and dangerous loose cannon.

In an era of pandemic lockdowns, racial justice protests, increasing violence and attacks against democracy, precisely when Los Angeles County most needed a mature and reassuring public safety official, Villanueva was just another barrel of gasoline on a smoldering fire. His tenure is a virtual how-not-to handbook for leadership.

He leaves to Luna a department in perhaps worse condition than when Lee Baca stepped down in 2014 amid investigations into deputies’ abuse of jail inmates and before Baca’s conviction and imprisonment on obstruction charges.

He leaves a department with diminished authority, because other county leaders did not trust him; a diminished budget, because he could not manage it properly; and diminished respect, because he misused his power to go after anyone he saw as conspiring against him, including his constitutional policing advisors, his closest aides, the Board of Supervisors, the inspector general, the Civilian Oversight Commission, the county chief executive officer and any number of journalists. He leaves deputies who, because of Villanueva's insolent style of leadership, are more resentful than ever of the public they serve and the other elected officials who lead the government that employs them.

The pervasive narrative that he was a walking, talking bait-and-switch — that he campaigned as a progressive reformer but moved to the right once elected — is off-base. As a candidate in 2018 Villanueva made clear, to anyone who would listen, who he was and what he wanted. He was another in a long line of deputies and mid-level staff more focused on intradepartmental grievances than service to the public. Too many supporters on the left heard only what they wanted to hear: that he was a Democrat, that he was Latino, that he would do a more thorough job than the incumbent in ousting federal immigration agents from the jail, that he would right past department wrongs.

He leaves a lesson for voters: Pay attention to more than labels and slogans. Election mistakes can be corrected, but there are steep costs.

Some of Villanueva’s antics, like his raid on the homes of County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Civilian Oversight Commissioner Patti Giggans, were so shocking that they obscure a basic truth: Most of L.A. got off easy. A majority of county residents don't live in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department, and have not been sent to jails staffed by sheriff's deputies. They vote for the sheriff but are not directly affected by him, even when he strays from his jurisdiction, as, for example, during his self-aggrandizing trip down the Venice Boardwalk last year.

There are other sheriffs in other counties around the nation who share Villanueva's grandiose notions about their supposedly inherent and unparalleled powers, and they wield them even more irresponsibly — for example, by threatening to unilaterally seize voting machines or confiscate library books, or indeed do anything that strikes them as contrary to their own perception of law and order.

Los Angeles County doesn’t have a political culture that would tolerate such a move from the right, nor does Villanueva have the political savvy to pull it off.

But his transgressions were bad enough, and they go beyond bogus criminal investigations. Although he didn't create sheriff gangs and didn't invent bad shootings of suspects, both problems festered on his watch.

Candidates with more popular appeal and more talent than Villanueva could pose an even more serious danger, and any number of charlatans better attuned to Los Angeles might have won reelection. Villanueva's ineptitude helped the county dodge a bullet.

Luna’s talent is of a different nature. As an appointed police chief in Long Beach, he’s used to working with others to achieve common public safety goals, and as a former police officer he respects a chain of command. He does not harbor illusions about so-called constitutional sheriffs being the final law-and-order authority, ahead of the federal government and other local elected officials.

But L.A. County residents should harbor no illusions that, with Luna in and Villanueva gone, everything at the Sheriff’s Department will now neatly fall into place. Luna will have a bigger task than just leading the department. He must rescue it, perhaps even reinvent it. He must grapple with a decentralized culture that not only tolerates station-based sheriff gangs but encourages them. And he must do it at a time in which more questions will be raised about whether L.A. County sheriffs should be elected and whether the same agency that runs the jails should also patrol the streets.

Luna has done L.A. County a great public service by challenging Villanueva. He will need to call on all his leadership skills and experience to navigate the difficult tasks ahead.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.