L.A. County supervisors vote to explore options to remove Sheriff Villanueva

Alene Tchekmedyian
·5 min read
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, JUNE 11, 2019: LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announces the arrest of a suspect in the shooting of Deputy Joseph Solano, who is in critical condition after being shot in the head, in a press conference in Los Angeles, Calif., on June 11, 2019. Shreriff's Deputy Joseph Solano, a 13-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department, was off-duty and waiting for his meal at the Jack in the Box on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra about 5:45 p.m. Monday when he was shot once in the head. Suspect Rhett McKenzie Nelson, 30, of St. George, Utah, was detained in Long Beach. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is looking into options for removing Sheriff Alex Villanueva. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A divided Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday escalated its running power struggle with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, voting to explore ways he could be removed from office, including through a change to the state's Constitution.

The 3-2 vote to build a playbook for removing Villanueva is the latest turn in a tumultuous two years of conflict — both in and out of court — between the county's top law enforcement official and members of the powerful board who have attacked the sheriff for what they see as his distaste for accountability and his efforts to roll back critical reforms.

The motion, authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, directs county lawyers and other staff to examine ways to impeach Villanueva or strip him of some responsibilities. One avenue being explored is an amendment to the state's Constitution that would shift all of California's county sheriffs from elected officials to appointed positions. The board will receive a report on viable options in January.

Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn were opposed; Supervisor Hilda Solis cast the swing vote for the proposal.

Before Tuesday's vote, Ridley-Thomas said in an interview that he is looking for institutional changes that would make law enforcement leaders more accountable, and that the actions of the current sheriff illustrate why these discussions are necessary.

"He has just made the case more compelling as to why it would be appropriate, but the conversation is structural," said Ridley-Thomas. "I doubt that someone who can be terminated in the appropriate manner would be as belligerent as we’re seeing with the current sheriff."

Ridley-Thomas will not see his measure through. Termed out of his seat on the county board, he was elected last week to a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.

Villanueva, who took office in December 2018, was elected by voters and is subjected to limited oversight from the board. He addressed supervisors Tuesday, touting his successes removing federal immigration officers from county jails, rolling out body cameras to deputies and implementing a policy prohibiting deputies from joining illicit cliques.

"I want to say that I have an open-door policy. I'd like to meet with each and every one of you personally," Villanueva said.

In the motion, Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl criticized Villanueva's attempts to block oversight and his failure to balance the Sheriff's Department budget. It said the county had paid out more than $149 million in the last five years to settle lawsuits and satisfy judgments in cases in which deputies were involved in incidents that include civil rights violations, excessive force, sexual assault and killings.

“With a sheriff that is unwilling to demand accountability for deputy misbehavior, lawsuits will continue to be filed against the sheriff, and it is the county’s taxpayers who will continue to pay for the consequences,” the motion says.

Underscoring their point, the board on Tuesday voted to approve a $3.9-million payment to settle a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Ryan Twyman, 24, an unarmed man who was killed by deputies in a hail of gunfire as he backed out of a South L.A. parking space in June 2019.

The Sheriff's Department has said deputies had been trying to arrest Twyman for several weeks when they spotted his vehicle in the parking lot. Two months earlier, the agency said, investigators had found guns at his home, but Twyman, who was on probation, was not there.

The homicide investigation is pending. It's one of several police shootings that Dist. Atty.-elect George Gascón said he had concerns with during his campaign.

A growing number of people — including two supervisors and a panel of civilian overseers, as well as dozens of activist and labor groups — have called on Villanueva to step down from his post, saying he has dragged his feet on important reforms, resisted oversight of the department and failed to hold deputies accountable.

The Los Angeles County Democratic Party, which provided a critical endorsement that boosted Villanueva's profile before his election, considered a resolution Tuesday night that would have called for his resignation. The resolution failed with 55% of 134 voters in favor, coming up shy of the required 60% of votes to pass.

Villanueva has said he has no plans to quit. The calls for him to do so are largely symbolic and highlight the fact that none of the sheriff's critics have begun the arduous process set out for recalling elected officials from office.

Ridley-Thomas said he and others studied the recall option about a year ago.

"The history of recalls suggest that they are very costly and typically unsuccessful," he said. He added later, "Those of us who are serious about the work are not interested in a fire drill — we're interested in real results and the systemic change."

Civil liberties advocates praised the board's action.

“Sheriff Villanueva represents a clear and present danger to civil liberties," Andres Kwon, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and outspoken critic of the sheriff, said in a statement. "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.”

Barger and Hahn both criticized Villanueva's leadership but said it should be up to the public to decide whether to recall him or vote him out when he's up for reelection in 2022.

"That's how democracy works," Hahn said. Voters, she added, "don't like politicians to take that power from them."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.