Good Cop, Bad Cop: The War Between The Sheriff and the D.A.

What could mortal enemies Alex Villanueva and George Gascón have in common? How about everything. (And nothing.)

ON THE SURFACE, they couldn’t be more different. One wears business suits; the other sports a cowboy hat and a badge. One is an indigo-blue progressive; the other has been called “the Donald Trump of L.A.” One says he wants to reform a corrupt and racist criminal justice system; the other claims to be bringing justice to the streets.

But it turns out these two political polar opposites—Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, 67, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, 58—have so much in common, they’re practically identical cousins. They don’t laugh alike or walk alike and at no time do they ever talk alike, but they are a crazy pair—the Patty Duke Show of L.A. politics, sharing strikingly parallel personal histories and career trajectories, even as they disagree about virtually everything.

At the moment, both are on paths to the ballot box. Gascón, who beat back a fizzled recall effort in 2021, may well find himself battling another one this year. He was first elected to a four-year term as DA in 2020, riding a wave of anti-law-enforcement resentment into the highest law enforcement office in the county. Hours after he was sworn in, he issued a controversial set of edicts to his prosecutors: From now on, they’d be prohibited from seeking the death penalty, even in the most horrific murder cases, and from charging people younger than 18 as adults no matter what crimes they committed. He also banned cash bail, which he saw as unfairly onerous for lower-income suspects.

At the time, in the wake of the George Floyd slaying and nationwide BLM marches, these sorts of progressive reforms obviously appealed to many in his base and beyond. But how voters feel about them now, in 2022, in the midst of an epic crime wave, is something of an open question.

Villanueva, meanwhile, will be up for his second four-year term as sheriff in November. Interestingly, when he ran for the first time in 2018, he too was a progressive, supported by the left wing of the Democratic Party, espousing reforms like body cams on county officers and opposing crackdowns on undocumented immigrants. But six months after taking office, he was already alarming the liberal coalition that had helped elect him, as he seemed to focus more on the rights of his deputies (for instance, he deactivated several misconduct investigations) than on the new era of police transparency he had promised whilecampaigning.

Then, last June, Villanueva took an even sharper turn rightward. He donned a cowboy hat and deployed his deputies to the Venice boardwalk to sweep up the encampments that had been proliferating on the beach. He’s now betting his career that his new hard line on the homeless will be a winning message in 2022, even as it cost him the endorsement of his own party. “Nothing will change your political view more than seeing a homeless person defecate on your front lawn,” he told me last September, as he toured a homeless encampment in Brentwood. “That will alter your entire universe.”

Even though neither of these politicians will be running against each other, they nevertheless present Los Angeles with as stark a choice as any head-to-head matchup in any election. How voters choose, even if it’s not directly between them, will in large measure determine which way L.A. goes on what’s shaping up to be the most critical issue of the day: crime and punishment. Will Angelenos continue to embrace a progressive DA who wants to empty the city’s overcrowded jails and prisons? Will they give another term to a tough-talking sheriff whose zero-tolerance policies toward street crime and homelessness will surely fill them right back up? Or will they split the difference and keep—or reject—them both? All those questions will eventually be answered at the polls. But what will remain a mystery, no matter who wins or loses, is how such shockingly similar men with such remarkably similar biographies ended up on such different sides of the political divide. Just like Patty and Cathy, they’re two of a kind, one pair of matching bookends, different as night and day. And they can definitely make you lose your mind.

LET’S BEGIN WITH the most obvious parallels: Both men grew up on Caribbean islands. Gascón was born in Cuba before immigrating to California; Villanueva was born in Chicago before his family moved to Puerto Rico. In young adulthood, they both joined the U.S. military— Gascón, the Army; Villanueva, the Air Force. Eventually, they both started careersinlaw enforcement in L.A., Gascón as a beat cop in the L.A. Police Department and Villanueva as a deputy in the sheriff’s department. Early on, they both patrolled L.A.’s East Side.

Gascón’s rise through the department was methodical. He was promoted from patrol officer to sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and, finally, to commander, earning a law degree from Western State College along the way. In 2000, then-chief Bernard Parks, an old-school law enforcement fixture, gave Gascón command of the LAPD training unit. This was just before the infamous Rampart scandal—in which Los Angeles’s elite anti-gang unit was exposed as a bunch of evidence-planting, narcotics-dealing, suspect-beating thugs—pushed Parks out of office.

Gascón applied to be Parks’s replacement but was passed over. Instead, LAPD’s new chief, in 2003, would be William Bratton, New York City’s former top cop who, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, administered the so-called broken windows policing policy, in which even the most minor offenses were punished as harshly as the law would allow. Soon after he arrived to Los Angeles, Bratton appointed Gascón assistantchief of police in charge of operations, effectively the No. 2 job in the department, gushingly describing Gascón as his “crime fighter” and comparing him to General Patton (presumably to Bratton’sEisenhower).

In 2006, Gascón left the LAPD when he was hired as chief of police in Mesa, Arizona, where he found himself frequently clashing with the Maricopa County sheriff—that would be future Trump supporter and pardon recipient Joe Arpaio—over Arpaio’s immigration sweeps of Latino neighborhoods. But Gascón didn’t stay in Arizona long. In 2009, he returned to California to become San Francisco’s chief of police. Then, in 2011, he was appointed the city’s district attorney by outgoing mayor Gavin Newsom (who’d just been elected governor), replacing outgoing District Attorney Kamala Harris (who’d just been elected a U.S. senator). Gascón’s reign in San Francisco was, in many ways, a preview of his tenure in LA. He advocated for abolishing cash bail and for more lenient drug laws. (In fact, he retroactively overturned every marijuana conviction in the city since 1975.) He also coauthored statewide Proposition 47, the now super-controversial provision that downgraded theft of under $950 from a felony to a misdemeanor. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, property crime in San Francisco skyrocketed 37 percent during his tenure.

In any other election year, Gascón might not have stood a chance to become L.A.’s district attorney. But 2020 was a perfect opportunity for a liberal firebrand, and Gascón’s reputation as a law enforcement reformer made him an attractive candidate during the racial and social reckoning that inspired the Defund the Police movement after George Floyd’s murder. Backed by big-dollar donations from liberal supporters (including Fox News bogeyman George Soros), Gascón handily defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey. And he wasted not a second in implementing his new reformist agenda. Literally, as he was being sworn in—his wife, Univision anchor Fabiola Kramsky, held the copy of the Constitution—an email was being sent to Gascón’s 400 prosecutors announcing his intention to scrap enforcement of scores of laws, from special circumstances for murder to the three-strikes rule to extra penalties for gang crimes. A sizable number of his staffers—and the city’s citizens—were shocked by the swiftness of his actions. Some of them even sued him.

“I believe our footprint should be reduced,” the DA told Los Angeles, explaining his law enforcement philosophy. “I mean, even under my directives, we still prosecute many cases that should never see the inside of a courtroom. We arrest people who should never bearrested.”

Not surprisingly, there was blowback. Along with the suit brought against him by some of his colleagues, Gascón’s critics launched a recall. Luckily for the new DA, though, that recall turned out to be a circus. It quickly splintered into competing groups, with infighting between breakaway factions sucking up all the energy. The movement did draw a few big-name sponsors, including a very enthusiastic supporter named Alex Villanueva, who even attended a press conference launching the effort. But it ultimately failed to gather the 580,000 signatures needed to set a recall in motion. In fact, it barely squeezed out 200,000.

A second recall movement is in the works, however, and with crime now the No. 1 issue for a growing number of Angelenos, this one may well find more traction. “There is a new movement afoot,” says Villanueva, who still supports the Recall Gascón effort. “There’s been new, more-efficient fundraising. A much better effort than the first time. The pros are taking over. I think it will work this time around.”

IF GASCON BEGAN HIS political career as Bratton’s Patton and ended up becoming something more like L.A.’s Gandhi, then Villanueva started as Gandhi only to end up as something more likePatton.

Villanueva spent his early years in the sheriff’s department, which patrols where the LAPD does not—unincorporated county land and some 40 contract cities—in a variety of roles, including drill instructing at the Sheriff’s Academy, supervising at the women’s jail in Lynwood, and serving as a watch commander at the Pico Rivera Station. He also spent some time at California State University in Long Beach as an adjunct professor of criminal justice. Among his most notable accomplishments as a young deputy: spearheading a
1988 drive to ban smoking in the Los Angeles County jail system.

But just as the Rampart police scandal lit the fuse on Gascón’s ambition, a scandal at the sheriff’s department set in motion Villanueva’s rise. In 2014, then-sheriff Lee Baca and numerous other department officials were indicted on federal corruption charges and sentencedto prison. Former Long Beach police chief Jim McDonnell—who, in the early 2000s, happened to be Gascón’s predecessor as LAPD’s chief of operations—was elected to clean house as the new sheriff. Villanueva, though, thought McDonnell was a disappointment and saw himself as a better fit to broom out corruption. He challenged McDonnell in the 2018 election and, for the first time in a century, an incumbent L.A. sheriff was defeated.

At first, Villanueva did indeed look like a genuine reformer. He got $35 million in funding to put body cameras on deputies across the county, and he kicked federal ICE agents out of county jails and courts, where they’d been trawling for undocumented immigrants. But there’s been plenty to criticize as well. Reports of excessive force continue to plague the department—they prompted the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to call for Villanueva’s resignation in 2020 (after the sheriff refused to appear before the board) and triggered a 2021 investigation by California’s then-attorney general, Xavier Becerra. Villanueva’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has also raised some eyebrows. The same health nut who once banned smoking from county jails has for some reason been unwilling to enforce state-mandated vaccine requirements in his department.

Still, the notion that he’s the “Donald Trump of L.A.”—that he’s changed his stripes since he ran as a reformist in 2018 before he started sweeping Venice of homeless people—clearly makes him bristle. “That’s an invention of the far left to try to cast aspersions on me,” he says of the nickname. “But I’m not going to be pigeonholed. I’ve got death threats from the left and from the right, which tells me I’m right where I need to be.”

Villanueva—who faces a crowded field of candidates in his upcoming race for reelection, including the spectacularlynamed Cecil Rhambo, currently LAX Airport police chief and Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna—insists he hasn’t left the Democratic Party, that it’s the Democratic Party that’s left him. “Remember,” he says, “a progressive in 2018 is not progressive in 2021. Somewhere along the way, they drank the woke Kool-Aid after the George Floyd thing, and they became ‘Let’s defund law enforcement’ and all this weird stuff. That’s that crop today.”

Not at all surprisingly, his identical cousin has an altogether different take on which way the political winds are blowing. “When people get offended about defunding the police,” Gascón says, “my comeback is always, ‘Nobody was offended when we defunded public education. We defunded public health, we defunded mental health. Nobody was offended by it. So I am not offended by the term.”

What a wild duet, indeed. Villanueva has seen the sights a sheriff can see from La Habra Heights. Gascón has been almost everywhere, from Eagle Rock to Pershing Square. And between them, Los Angeles’s future may well hang in the balance.

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