Meet Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the Donald Trump of L.A. Law Enforcement

Progressives helped elect a dark horse candidate for sheriff, and he’s made them regret it ever since
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The sheriff had made up his mind. Despite knee pain that his publicist described as “bone rubbing against bone,” Alexandro “Alex” Villanueva was going to gut it out and walk the length of the route on his own power. For Villanueva, a union man who rails at privilege and has gone to great lengths to show his loyalties to the rank and file, riding in a golf cart was as unsuitable as showing up on horseback. It was a damp Sunday morning in May, and he was standing in the middle of Ocean Boulevard with a dozen uniformed sheriff’s deputies when the roar of motorcycle engines from a club called Dykes on Bikes signaled the start of the gay pride parade of Long Beach. Amid a sea of bouncing bodies and waving rainbow flags, Los Angeles County’s new sheriff walked and winced and waved.

The knee injury dates back to his years as a drill instructor at the sheriff’s academy in Whittier, one of a dozen assignments he held in the department’s line staff, as rank-and-file deputies and supervisors are known. Being in command is a totally new experience for Villanueva, who in his 32 years in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had never risen above the middling rank of lieutenant.

Last November Villanueva knocked off the incumbent sheriff, Jim McDonnell, in an electoral upset of David-and-Goliath proportions. A sitting L.A. County sheriff hadn’t lost a bid for reelection in more than a century. McDonnell had the vastly superior resume: former police chief of Long Beach; former second-in-command at the LAPD under Chief William Bratton; coauthor of a searing report by a blue-ribbon county jail violence commission that critiqued a brutal culture inextricably linked to poor management and inadequate oversight. McDonnell was the first person from outside the department to occupy the office of sheriff in 100 years.

In the run-up to the election, McDonnell was jogging through the race as if his victory was all but assured. But his stance on immigration proved to be his Achilles’ heel, and Villanueva, with a brusque style that played to the crowd, pummeled the incumbent relentlessly for his position throughout the campaign.

Villanueva is 56, of average height and sturdy build, with a round almost cherubic face, blue eyes, and graying hair cropped short and combed straight back. He was born in Chicago to a Polish American mother and a Puerto Rican father, arriving in Southern California when he was assigned to an Air Force base in San Bernardino. In McDonnell, the ruddy-faced son of Irish immigrants and former Republican, he had a perfect foil. McDonnell was a vocal opponent of a “sanctuary state” law that limits ways local law enforcement can cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Villanueva was the first Latino candidate for L.A. County sheriff since 1890, and the first to speak fluent Spanish since 1880. He got strong backing from prominent Latino politicians and activists, including former state Sen. Kevin de León (author of SB 54, the sanctuary state law), former county Supervisor Gloria Molina, and esteemed labor organizer and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. “Being Latino was huge [for him],” said Javier Gonzalez, who ran Villanueva’s political action committee. “It was 2018, and we had a conservative white sheriff who kind of looked like Bull Connor.”

When McDonnell’s hard-line stance on cooperating with ICE drew support from the Trump administration, what was traditionally a nonpartisan race morphed into a much watched contest in a high-stakes midterm billed as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency. “L.A. County voters needed an eye to poke their finger in for Trump,” Gonzalez said. “We gave them Jim McDonnell’s.”

Villanueva became the first candidate for L.A. County sheriff in 138 years to secure the Democratic Party’s endorsement, and forced McDonnell into a runoff. The success of his insurgent campaign stunned the city’s political establishment. One of Villanueva’s greatest strengths was his ability to serve as a blank slate for a diverse array of constituencies—a hodgepodge of Latinos, white progressives, labor unions, and immigrant advocates. But if identity politics from the left helped drive Villanueva’s improbable victory, it was the powerful union of sheriff’s deputies that contributed most of the money, pumping $1.32 million into his long-shot campaign.

Villanueva is L.A.’s first Democratic sheriff in more than a century, the first Latino, and the first to speak fluent Spanish since 1880.

Six months into his new administration, after a series of controversial moves, the unorthodox alliance that propelled him into office is already fraying. While the deputies’ union must be pleased with his tenure, many of the progressive and Democratic groups that put Villanueva over the top are feeling betrayed. “I think a lot of Democratic activists are very concerned about what’s been happening with the Sheriff’s Department,” said Lester Aponte, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, which marched with Villanueva in last year’s L.A. Pride parade but has cooled to him since. “It’s not what we expected.” Other dispirited supporters now claim Villanueva deliberately concealed his true intentions from them, a charge he firmly rejects. “I’m not doing anything I didn’t say I was going to do on the campaign trail,” the sheriff says.

As a candidate, he spoke frequently about reform, transparency, and public integrity. As an officeholder, he has refocused largely on the rights of deputies who he says were treated unfairly by his predecessor. He has deactivated an alarming number of misconduct investigations, reinstated deputies previously fired for misconduct, and created a “truth and reconciliation” process to consider returning to duty as many as 400 more deputies and civilian employees fired under McDonnell for causes that include unreasonable use of force, lying to investigators, and domestic violence. “What the previous administration did is try to turn every act of misconduct into a potential termination case,” Villanueva said. “They thought that the more people who were fired the better, that it was a sign of reform. We’re going to reexamine every termination case to ensure it was a proper decision based on facts.”

sheriff alex villanueva wife
Sheriff Alex Villanueva at his swearing-in last December with his wife, Vivian, and son, Jared

Sarah Reingewirtz/SCNG via Zuma Wire

At long Beach’s Pride parade, Villanueva shook hands and bumped fists with the cordial reserve of an adjunct professor who trained in the Air Force Reserves. He accepted a hug from a tattooed and tipsy reveler. He stiffly posed for selfies with a woman in a scanty tiger onesie and five friends dressed as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. “Thank you for your service!” a woman shouted from the crowd. “You got it,” he replied in a soft voice that dissolved instantly in the commotion of music and cheering.

The sky over the parade was forbidding and gray, and the sheriff’s two bodyguards were carrying umbrellas. But despite the threat of rain, Villanueva opted not to wear the departmental dress jacket, a natty green-and-gold signifier of superior rank that the sheriff disdains in the way Napoleon might have disdained the Bourbon insignia on France’s old royal army uniform. Except for the five gold stars pinned to his collar, his uniform showed no outward sign distinguishing the sheriff from the other department personnel in the parade contingent. He seems to have an intuitive grasp of the martial significance of the outfit. He wears his stars in a circle, as did General Douglas MacArthur, one of his military heroes, and not in a straight line, as preceding L.A. County sheriffs did. “A straight line is a symbol of hierarchy,” he explained to me with a stony frown.

At the start of 2018, Villanueva was a lowly watch commander at the Pico Rivera station, responsible for supervising the roughly 25 deputies who patrol a nine-square-mile patch of the southern county that’s home to 63,000 residents. Today he leads a department of nearly 10,000 deputies and 8,500 civilians responsible for public safety in an area of more than 4,000 square miles. He is the head of the second-largest municipal law enforcement agency and the largest jail system in the country. In one of his first actions as sheriff, the former lieutenant with a history of clashing with superiors fired the top 16 highest-ranking executives in the Sheriff’s Department—via email. Then, ignoring rank and seniority, he filled executive-level vacancies with mostly midlevel captains and lieutenants promoted from the line staff.

But the shake-up wasn’t limited to the top ranks. Villanueva also required nearly 500 supervisors to turn in résumés, essentially asking them to reapply for their jobs. What’s more, in an exercise in nonhierarchical thinking, he had all of them remove the gold pins that signified their rank on uniforms. The disruptive way that he went about gutting the department’s executive command left some observers wondering if he was acting out a personal vendetta.

There is indeed something deeply personal in the sheriff’s commitment to remediate resentment among his troops. He is in many ways a product of the grievances he seeks to redress. Villanueva has had difficulties throughout his career, losing out on coveted promotions thanks to his quarrelsome tendency to fight uphill battles with management. He was suspended twice, for five and ten days, for allegedly failing to report in a timely manner derogatory statements made by another employee. He says the internal investigations were a form of payback by superiors after he sued the department for racial discrimination. He speaks bitterly of his experiences with the department’s internal affairs and criminal investigation divisions, denouncing the incidents as politically motivated and “an abomination.” “All the battles I fought with the department allowed me to understand the system from the inside out,” he said. “I could see where it was strong and where it was rotten.”

In May the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, an umbrella group of 21 clubs that phone banked for Villanueva, issued a public rebuke of what it described as the sheriff’s “unilateral action on rehiring,” and called for the rescinding of all employment decisions made by the sheriff’s “reconciliation panel.” The resolution has since been forwarded to the county Democratic Party. Tensions have hit a fever pitch between the sheriff and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, whose members say Villanueva has overstepped his authority in ways that damaged the public interest. The dispute is such that the county has taken the rare step of suing the department to block the reinstatement of a fired deputy who was Villanueva’s personal driver during the campaign, a situation that has turned into an unusually public fracas. Shanna Ingalsbee, chair of the DPSFV, which represents groups from across the western half of the county from Miracle Mile to Palmdale, said the decision to rebuke Villanueva has polarized its members. “There’s a vocal group that basically wants his head on a platter,” Ingalsbee said, “but there’s a also a group of people that want to give him time to find his legs.”

Unbowed by the growing criticism, Villanueva has doubled down, arguing that most of the department’s problems were caused by McDonnell’s administration, which he says had put a thumb on the scale of internal investigation proceedings. “This was a wholesale campaign of mass firings with very grave consequences, and the Board of Supervisors didn’t care,” he said. “They thought that the more people that were fired, it was somehow better, that it was a sign of reform. They didn’t care if the terminations were illegal.”

Villanueva’s propensity to dump on his predecessor and gleefully thumb his nose at his critics has led one county official to brand Villanueva “the most Trumpian Democrat” ever elected in L.A. County. His statements and actions often are at odds with the reform-minded political consensus that emerged after a series of scandals involving jailhouse beatings and cover-ups brought disgrace on the department. Early in his tenure, Villanueva claimed that officials under McDonnell deliberately underreported acts of violence in the jails and ordered jailers not to defend themselves from attacks by inmates. Challenged by a federally appointed jail monitor, he walked back those charges. The assistant sheriff in charge of the custody division explained away the inflammatory claims as “a result of miscommunications amongst staff.” But while statistics show that serious force by jailers has dropped sharply as a result of McDonnell’s reforms, Villanueva persists in branding the policy changes “a social experiment that failed miserably.”

“His statements are troubling,” said Peter Eliasberg, lead counsel for the ACLU of Southern California and coauthor of a landmark 2011 report that exposed inmate abuse in L.A. County jails. “They send the message to deputies: Be more assertive. That was the original problem. The way you controlled the jails was with this iron fist,” Eliasberg said.

Despite civilian criticism, Villanueva’s adversarial temperament and hard-driving leadership style have endeared him to the lower and middle ranks of the department. Even vocal critics of the sheriff admit that morale in the ranks is on the rise. At the same time, glowing anecdotes about his dedication abound, like the one in which he worked on Christmas Day and used a communications feed to wish deputies on patrol a merry Christmas and thank them for working on a holiday. Last June when an off-duty deputy named Joseph Solano was attacked and critically wounded at a fast-food restaurant in Alhambra, Villanueva sat with Solano’s family at the hospital on multiple occasions, appeared with them before cameras at a teary-eyed press conference, and was with them on the day Solano died. As a young lieutenant in the department who enthusiastically supports Villanueva put it to me, “Once you meet the guy in person, you just see he’s the real deal.”

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After the parade, I accompanied Villanueva to the patio of a sushi restaurant in Long Beach, where we spent the next hour at an empty table talking about the highly controversial start to his four-year term. His wife, Vivian, a 30-year veteran of the department who recently retired, waited in the parking lot with members of the sheriff’s executive team. He and Vivian have been married for 22 years, and together they raised the sheriff’s son from a previous relationship, Jared, an Army veteran who served in Iraq. Villanueva sat with his shoulders squared and his arms folded, answering my questions bluntly and with an almost preternatural calm.

It’s his trademark demeanor—a poised but prickly intransigence. The same stance was on display at the January 29 meeting of the Board of Supervisors when Villanueva showed up unannounced to respond to a rare public rebuke from the board for unilaterally reinstating a former deputy and campaign volunteer fired for allegations of domestic violence. The president of the East Area Progressive Democrats watched in amazement as the sheriff stood impassively in the heat of withering criticism from a roomful of exasperated former supporters. At his once-a-month media briefings, which are livestreamed on Facebook, no amount of grilling has caused Villanueva to lose his cool.

Ever since the mid-1970s, a wide range of activists and investigators have assailed the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for tacitly approving brutal conduct in the lower ranks, turning a blind eye to gang-like deputy cliques, and for discipline and reporting standards so lax that they verge on the nonexistent. While Villanueva acknowledges the problems that had hobbled the department in the past, he believes the pendulum of reform had swung back too far in the wrong direction. He told me that stricter standards and harsher penalties for deputy misconduct have decimated the department’s morale and prompted an exodus of top deputies. To repair the damage he immediately set about undoing many of McDonnell’s most- high-profile reforms.

Since Villanueva took over as sheriff, deputies involved in multiple on-duty shootings are no longer automatically required to undergo a special evaluation and possible reassignment. Department supervisors no longer have to recuse themselves from disciplinary hearings involving deputies with whom they have a personal relationship. And the two attorneys who used to advise the sheriff on constitutional policing have been fired.

Villanueva’s rapid counter-reformation has been a tough sell for county supervisors like Sheila Kuehl, who had praised McDonnell for holding errant deputies more accountable. But her endorsement of his predecessor does not impress Villanueva, who dismisses McDonnell as an unscrupulous lapdog of the board. “They were happy with McDonnell because he did whatever they pleased,” he said.

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During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Villanueva completed a master’s degree from Cal State Northridge and later obtained a PhD in public administration from the University of La Verne, a small private university in the San Gabriel Valley. For his thesis he produced a paper that sharply criticized the department for its lackluster promotion of Latino officers. (Sheriff Lee Baca was an expert panel member on the master’s thesis committee.) In conversation Villanueva cited the research of Irving Janis, a psychologist from Yale University who studied leadership debacles like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and who published early work on the phenomenon known as “groupthink.”

Because of groupthink, Villanueva said, the entire Sheriff’s Department had fallen into disrepair during the previous administration. Groupthink had battered morale and had produced a lawless free-for-all in the county’s jails.

The color rose on the sheriff’s cheeks as he discussed his predecessor, blaming him for the hundreds of vacancies in the department as well as its $100 million budget deficit. He reserves special bile for McDonnell’s “wholesale campaign of mass firing,” claiming that McDonnell axed deputies impulsively and injudiciously. But a review of personnel data on the department’s website belies that charge. It shows that a total of 169 deputies were fired during McDonnell’s four-year tenure as sheriff, just 14 more than were fired by the department in the four years prior to his arrival. In 2013, shortly before Baca resigned as sheriff, he fired 76 deputies in a single year, a record number for this decade.

Villanueva counters that over 400 staffers left the department during McDonnell’s term as sheriff, a number that includes not only fired deputies and civilian personnel but also many employees who resigned or retired before their disciplinary reviews had concluded. Under Villanueva’s new policy, many of those fired staffers will be invited back. What county officials fear is the return of bad apples to the department Villanueva defends as “procedural justice.”

The first test case for his controversial new policy was Caren Carl Mandoyan, a deputy who was the sheriff’s driver during the 2018 campaign. Mandoyan’s ten-year career with the department ended in 2016 after an internal investigation found he had stalked and physically abused an ex-girlfriend—a fellow deputy in the Sheriff’s Department—and attempted to break into her home. Ordinarily state law protects the privacy of personnel matters involving a law enforcement officer. But since Mandoyan had sued the county for discrimination, much of the damaging evidence against him was a matter of public record. Mandoyan was a big enough ally that he was onstage during Villanueva’s swearing in, holding the gold pins to be set on the uniform collars of the sheriff and his newly minted officers.

Videos leaked to the public in the spring of 2018 show Mandoyan allegedly attempting to enter his accuser’s apartment through a bathroom window and struggling to remove a sliding glass door from its track. Janice Hahn, who chairs the Board of Supervisors, called the videos “frightening.” “The fact that he was a sheriff’s deputy adds to that fear,” Hahn said.

Villanueva picked three men from his executive staff to re-adjudicate Mandoyan’s appeal. In a report issued December 27, the panel recommended reinstatement for Mandoyan, throwing out the most serious accusations of domestic violence, stalking, harassment, and lying to investigators. Soon after, without approval from the county counsel and in violation of the county Civil Service Commission, the sheriff reinstated Mandoyan and agreed to award him more than two years in back pay. Villanueva dismisses the entire imbroglio as “a private relationship between two consenting adults that went bad.”

The Board of Supervisors disagrees. In the wake of the Mandoyan decision, it issued a unanimous rebuke of the sheriff, citing “grave concerns over how this particular matter has been handled and the message it sends to law enforcement personnel, as well as victims of domestic violence and the public at large.” When Villanueva refused to budge, the county cut off Mandoyan’s pay and filed for an injunction to block the deputy from rejoining the department. Mandoyan had exhausted his appeals to the civil service board. According to the rules of the county charter his reinstatement requires the approval of the county counsel. The legal case is pending. Villanueva has said Mandoyan continues to report to work: “He’s submitting his time cards. He’s doing his job.”

Patricia Giggans, the chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, has run a domestic violence agency in L.A. for 34 years. She said that by making Mandoyan’s case the first in the “truth and reconciliation” process, the sheriff is discrediting his initiative. “He is miscalculating where the public is in understanding the severity of domestic violence,” Giggans said.

The sheriff explains that he started with the Mandoyan case “because it was the one I was most familiar with.” “Could I have been tactically smarter, saved it for later, waited six months or a year? Yeah,” he said with a shrug.

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Villanueva, an avid history buff, feels a particular kinship with quixotic military leaders who have prevailed in battle against the odds. A personal favorite is Union Army Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who led a bloody bayonet charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. “He was outnumbered eight to one,” Villanueva said matter of factly. “I’m used to facing long odds. I admire what he did.” It’s the same combative us-against-the-world approach that has characterized not only his ascendance to power, but also the first eight months of his administration. During the campaign Villanueva promised to “physically remove” uniformed ICE agents from the county jail system—ending the round-the-clock access they enjoyed in the main lockup downtown—and to defer to the “very bright line” drawn in the sanctuary state law to separate local law enforcement from immigration enforcement.

“It’s nothing but a naked power play,” said Villanueva responding to opposition from the board. “They want to control the entire county. It’s all politics.”

While Villanueva has indeed banned uniformed ICE agents from the jails he has replaced them with private contractors, which critics have called a distinction without a difference. In March the interim head of L.A. County’s Office of the Inspector General testified to the Board of Supervisors that under the new sheriff, the number of inmates transferred to ICE custody had dropped by just 1.9 percent. Villanueva strongly disputes that. He insists that the department reduced migrant transfers by 47 percent from January through April compared with the same period last year. He claims that the Board of Supervisors has deployed the entire apparatus of civilian oversight to bring down his administration. He said the Office of the Inspector General, the Office of County Counsel, the Civilian Oversight Committee, and the Civil Service Commission are all headed by board appointees but that all four of the Democratic supervisors endorsed his opponent for election. Consequently he believes every damaging report they issue about his department must be taken with a boulder-size grain of salt.

“It’s nothing but a naked power play,” he snapped. “[The board] wants to control the entire county, including departments controlled by elected officials like myself. It’s all politics and nothing else.”

Supervisor Hahn disagreed. “I’m not at war with the sheriff,” she insisted. “The Board of Supervisors really has very little direct oversight of the Sheriff’s Department. But when he makes a decision that threatens public safety we have to say something.”

The sheriff had resumed roasting the reforms of his predecessor when the department’s publicist stood and declared the interview over. It was Elizabeth Espinosa’s first week on the job. The Emmy Award-winning multilingual journalist and UCLA grad, born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents from Mexico and El Salvador, adds a new media-savvy dimension to the sheriff’s hard-nosed entourage. In a city like L.A., even sheriffs have to be conscious of their image. In the past few months, the Los Angeles Times and LAist have produced a steady drumbeat of opposition to Villanueva’s policies. Whether a fresh approach to messaging and image control will prevent future discord remains to be seen. As the parade in Long Beach wound down, the engine was already running in the sheriff’s Chevy Tahoe, and Villanueva was inching gingerly on his sore knee toward the passenger door, which an assistant held for him. With time for one more question, I asked about the series of closed-door meetings I’d heard he’d had with jilted supporters from the Democratic Party.

What does he have to say to his disillusioned progressive allies? He turned to me as serenely as a parishioner at Mass. “When the truth comes out it won’t be pretty. I’ve seen all the cards they haven’t. We have all the facts,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”


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