Democrats helped Alex Villanueva be elected sheriff of Los Angeles County in November. Many of the party faithful have since come to regret it.
On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party approved an unusual rebuke of the sheriff, whose improbable victory the party had enthusiastically endorsed and campaigned for. By a clear majority, the party issued a formal statement of disapproval highly critical of the sheriff for what it refers to as “numerous complaints of abuse of his office” it says have “eroded the trust of the public.”
While the statement of disapproval is non-binding and stops short of withdrawing support, it does represent a political reversal for Villanueva, the first L.A. County sheriff in 138 years to secure the Democratic Party’s endorsement, and the party once declared his election its biggest victory.
“It’s obviously rare,” says Tony Hale, chair of the committee that brought the resolution to a vote. “But this is a unique situation.”
The party’s timely support put Villanueva in position to ride the “blue wave” of progressive opposition to Donald Trump in last year’s high-turnout midterm election in heavily Democratic L.A. County. As a candidate, Villanueva 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.
As Los Angeles reported in a profile of the sheriff published on July 26, Sheriff Villanueva has faced mounting criticism for a series of controversial actions he’s taken in recent months. Villanueva has deactivated an alarming number of misconduct investigations, unilaterally reinstated deputies previously fired for misconduct, including Caren Carl Mandoyan, a former campaign driver of Villanueva’s fired for allegations of domestic violence, and created a “truth and reconciliation” process to consider reinstating as many as 400 more deputies and civilian employees fired under his predecessor for causes that include unreasonable use of force, lying to investigators, and domestic violence.
“It is hard to recall a politician having been endorsed by the Democratic Party who won office so clearly not doing what they said they were going to do, or even trying.” —Damian Carroll
The Democratic Party’s statement includes mention of a troubling allegation made by the department’s former chief of professional standards, who claims that she resigned after Villanueva asked to alter a deputy’s disciplinary record to cover up a history of misconduct.
The L.A. County Democratic Party is calling on the sheriff to shut down the “truth and reconciliation” panel, reverse all of its decisions relating to reinstatement of deputies, and seek guidance from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to restore “trust and transparency” in the Sheriff’s Department. These issues are subjects of an ongoing legal dispute between the Sheriff’s Department and the board of supervisors. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors cut off Mandoyan’s pay and filed for an injunction to block the deputy from rejoining the department.
In a written statement to Los Angeles, Sheriff Villanueva challenged the Democratic Party committee that wrote the resolution “to point out specifics that demonstrate my supposed failure to implement the reforms I campaigned on.” The sheriff objected to the assertion that his “truth and reconciliation” panel operates outside the legal bounds of the county’s charter. “What I have done and continue to do is to follow the well-established protocol of case review, which seeks the truth while reconciling employment decisions with all available evidence.”
The sheriff had previously appeared at the June 4 meeting of the resolutions committee of the L.A. County Democratic Party and spoke for more than an hour against the draft resolution. Committee members were afforded two months to consult additional sources before the matter came to a vote.
The main author of the resolution is Damian Carroll, a 15-year activist with the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, a coalition of 21 clubs that endorsed and phone banked for Villanueva last year. As chair of the coalition’s endorsement committee last year, Carroll conducted the interview with Villanueva and recommended him for endorsement—a decision he now considers a mistake.
“My role was somebody who really was excited by his candidacy and felt really misled when he came into office and started taking all these unethical steps,” Carroll says. “It is hard to recall a politician having been endorsed by the Democratic Party who won office so clearly not doing what they said they were going to do, or even trying.”
In his written response, Sheriff Villanueva strenuously objected to one statement in particular that says “immigrants in the sheriff’s custody continue to be delivered to ICE agents.” He called it “a total mischaracterization” of the changes he has made in the county jails involving ICE agents.
Perhaps the defining political issue of the sheriff’s election was Villanueva’s more oppositional view of law enforcement’s relationship with ICE.
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 a “sanctuary state” law to separate local law enforcement from immigration enforcement. Villanueva’s predecessor, Sheriff Jim McDonnell, had taken a more law-and-order stance with regard to his department’s cooperating with ICE, a position that made him unpopular with progressive activists and immigrant advocates.
But while Villanueva has banned uniformed ICE agents from the jails, he replaced them with private contractors, which critics have called a distinction without a difference. Now his own party is calling on him to end prisoner transfers to ICE “through all means including using contractors as middlemen.”
The interim head of L.A. County’s Office of the Inspector General, which oversees the department, testified in March that under Villanueva the number of inmates transferred to ICE custody had dropped by just 1.9 percent. Villanueva has insisted that department reduced migrant transfers by 47 percent from January through April compared with the same period last year, and he says that more recent records put the reduction in transfers at 79 percent.
“I am committed to transparency and I am working collaboratively with the board of supervisors to promote the public safety, which is my priority as L.A. County Sheriff overseeing 10 million residents,” Villanueva said.
Hale, chair of the committee that brought the resolution to a vote, acknowledged that its direct effect is probably limited. The sheriff was elected to run the second-largest municipal law enforcement agency and the largest jail system in the country. He is in the first year of a four-year term. But ultimately, he will have to answer to the voters who elected him.
“Right now our resolution gives the sheriff an opportunity and calls upon him to dispel these concerns and correct whatever mistakes have been made. At this point we’ve made the statement we’ve made and are looking to see what happens next.”
Carroll, the author of the resolution, says the bottom line is the sheriff has lost the public’s trust. “He came in with an expectation and a real optimism from his supporters that he was going to reform the department, restore public trust in department and bring about some serious positive changes to how the department was run. And instead he’s doing favors for friends, he’s combative, he’s not transparent, and he’s focusing on all these things that he never campaigned on.”
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