UPDATE: NOVEMBER 10, 2020 – The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has voted to take a step closer to removing Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Today’s vote will direct lawyers and staff at the county’s disposal to explore what options the supervisors may be able to avail themselves of in order to end Villanueva’s term sooner than 2022.
It is not entirely clear what those options may be. Los Angeles has not fired a sheriff in nearly a century. Paths forward might include impeachment proceedings–or even proposing an amendment to California’s state constitution to make sheriff an appointed, rather than elected, role.
Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the supervisors who has been most enthusiastic about sanctioning Villanueva, told the Los Angeles Times that, he believes, having a mechanism to remove a sheriff might prevent certain forms of misconduct.
“I doubt that someone who can be terminated in the appropriate manner would be as belligerent as we’re seeing with the current sheriff,” he said. “I doubt that anyone who wanted to retain his or her job would flout the will of the people with respect to complying with subpoenas.”
OCTOBER 29, 2020 – Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has made quite a few enemies during his relatively short time on the job. The Civilian Oversight Commission unanimously issued a resolution calling for him to step down, and at least two members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors are actively looking for ways to remove him from his role—but it may prove difficult to force him out.
Chiefs of police are appointed by mayors, and can be removed by them. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out in a recent editorial, military leaders, too, can be hired and fired by powerful civilians. But, in California, all 58 sheriffs are elected by voters and, in a sense, generally only subject to direct civilian oversight at the ballot box. Because Villanueva was elected in 2018, his current term in office is not set to end until 2022.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl are leading the push to find a way to end Villanueva’s term early, authoring a motion which would bring together various county resources to investigate the possibilities for impeachment or removal.
“Under the current sheriff, hard-fought vital progress is being undone, and community trust is rapidly eroding,” the motion reads. “While the board has been able to navigate challenging times with previous sheriffs, this sheriff’s actions demonstrate the dire need to explore options for removing a sheriff who refuses oversight or, at a minimum, mitigating damages caused by unacceptable behavior.”
But there’s little precedent for actually doing that. The Times notes that the last–and only–time a sheriff was removed by L.A.’s Board of Supervisors was in 1921.
In 2014, L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca left office midterm, but he resigned rather than face recall or removal for misconduct. At the time, Baca was the subject of a federal investigation, and was ultimately convicted for obstruction of justice.
If the supervisors want to move forward, they may look to San Bernardino County for inspiration. In 2002, that county established an ordinance that would allow for its supervisors to remove a sheriff by four-fifths vote of the board. That ordinance was challenged by the sheriff, but ultimately affirmed by the California Court of Appeals.
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