‘The sheriff who went rogue’: Alex Villanueva’s scandal-plagued tenure ends in LA

<span>Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP</span>
Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

For only the second time in more than a century, Los Angeles residents have voted out an incumbent sheriff, ending the reign of Alex Villanueva, a scandal-plagued official who civil rights leaders say had become a “danger to the people”.

Villanueva conceded to Robert Luna, the former police chief of the city of Long Beach, on Tuesday, one week after the election, with latest count showing Luna had 60% of the vote compared with the incumbent’s 40%. The results marked a decisive rejection of the leader of the largest county sheriff’s agency in the US.

The downfall of the cowboy hat-wearing sheriff comes at the end of a four-year term marked by a dizzying pace of misconduct, abuse and corruption scandals. As the race heated up in the last year, Villanueva faced increasing national scrutiny for his frequent, at times weekly, lashing out at politicians, community leaders, journalists, whistleblowers, watchdogs and other law enforcement officials who tried exposing problems at the department.

“He’ll be remembered as the sheriff who went rogue, who operated as if he was above and outside of the law, who acted with impunity,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, executive director of Dignity and Power Now, a group that advocates for people in LA county jails, which are run by the LA sheriff’s department (LASD).

A registered Democrat who had become a favorite of far-right pundits for his “tough on crime” talk and opposition to criminal justice reform, Villanueva has derided his critics as people who “worship at the altar of woke-ism”.

Hundreds of protesters gather in Los Angeles in September 2020 after Dijon Kizzee was killed in August by deputies.
Hundreds of protesters gather in Los Angeles in September 2020 after Dijon Kizzee was killed in August by deputies. Photograph: Jintak Han/AP

Villanueva was a lieutenant when he was elected in 2018 on a platform to clean up an agency that had repeatedly been the subject of investigations. More than a dozen LASD deputies had faced charges five years prior surrounding the beatings of incarcerated people; the top sheriff and his undersheriff were eventually imprisoned following federal obstruction and corruption cases. At trial, the undersheriff admitted he had a tattoo associated with a gang of officers that a judge said was a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist” group.

Villanueva has been accused of engaging in the same kind of cover-ups as his predecessors; while the county’s inspector general has recently identified dozens of current deputies believed to be members of officer “cliques” and gangs, which are known for encouraging brutality, Villanueva has defied subpoenas to testify on the issue and issued legal threats aiming to prevent officials from using the term “deputy gang”. He told the Guardian this year that the gangs were “a problem of perception, not reality”, and that he didn’t want to comply with “political subpoenas”.

A whistleblower also claimed Villanueva had personally directed a cover-up of an incident in which jail guards knelt on the head of a handcuffed man. The sheriff dismissed the allegations in the lawsuit and described former staffers suing him and the department as “disgruntled employees”.

In September, armed sheriff’s deputies raided the home of the county supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who serves on a sheriff’s oversight committee and has been a vocal critic. LASD said it was investigating a county contract and potential bribery, and seized Kuehl’s phone and personal computer, but the LA district attorney’s office said it was not involved in the search and had also investigated the claims last year and found no cause for charges.

Robert Luna, left, debates Villanueva.
Robert Luna, left, debates Villanueva. Photograph: Myung J Chun/EPA

The LA Times editorial board called the incident an indication of “just how unhinged” Villanueva had become, saying he was “LA’s loosest cannon and pettiest cop” and that his deputies “must choose whether to follow his crazy directives or defy him and sacrifice their jobs”. Villanueva said he had recused himself from the case but then gave a TV interview (while sitting in a bar) defending the investigation and further attacking Kuehl.

Other scandals on his watch include frequent killings by his deputies and excessive force claims, recently leading to $47m in payouts to families; allegations of severe abuse in jails and “barbaric” conditions; and repeated attacks on the press, including denying statements made to journalists even though the remarks were recorded.

“His legacy will be that he was the Donald Trump 2.0,” said Chiquita Twyman, an activist whose brother Ryan Twyman was killed by deputies in 2019, leading to criminal charges against an officer.

Voters ousted Villanueva at a time of deep racial tensions in LA politics surrounding leaked audio of Latino councilmembers making anti-Black comments and other racist remarks. The sheriff had fed those divisions during his term, critics said. Villanueva – who is Puerto Rican and the first Spanish speaker to be sheriff of LA, a county that is roughly 50% Latino – has spread racist tropes about crime, questioning why the media wasn’t doing more to cover “Black people killing Black people”.

“Us Black and brown people were making progress coming together and building bridges, but Villanueva came in and made it worse,” Twyman said.

Villanueva’s campaign did not respond to inquiries for this story.

His department has repeatedly been accused of harassing and retaliating against families who speak out, and Villanueva has personally criticized some of the relatives of people his agency killed.

“Villanueva didn’t want to face the families whose lives he’s ruined,” said Hali Holder, sister of Frederick Holder, who killed by deputies during a traffic stop last year, with officers firing more than 30 rounds. LASD said officers thought he was pointing a gun, but later admitted it was a lighter. When Hali and other families protested against him recently, Villanueva responded by calling them “fools” and saying most shootings by police were justified.

“How have these officers not been punished in any kind of way?” said April Holder, Frederick’s mother, adding that Villanueva “won’t even recognize us as families who lost loved ones”.

“He’s very egotistical and prideful, he couldn’t help but get in his own way,” said Sylvester Ani, an activist who has supported the Holder family in protests. “Villanueva is a microcosm of the growing police state we’re living under in America, the authoritarian push we’re starting to see in all sectors of politics. He represents the loudest aspect of it, and one good thing that came out of his tenure is that more eyes were focused on the department.”

Ani, however, said he was not particularly hopeful about Luna, the incoming sheriff, whose police department had its own racism and police violence scandals when he was chief: “I’m fearful that Luna will be more mild-mannered and measured in his tone, but the policies will continue to harm communities.”