Why the New Sheriff in L.A. County is a Major Breath of Fresh Air

Cityside Column: The incoming boss of the largest sheriff’s department in the U.S. grasps something Alex Villanueva never did—you gotta play politics
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Of all the candidates who won in Los Angeles County’s just-completed election cycle, perhaps no hopeful was more middle-of-the-road in terms of politics and agenda than new Sheriff Robert Luna. In many instances, this descriptor could be interpreted as a negative—yet after his predecessor’s reign, tempered and middling leadership is precisely what the nation’s largest sheriff’s department needs.

Luna had his swearing-in ceremony on Saturday, and on Monday at noon, he officially became the 34th sheriff of Los Angeles County. This came after he throttled Alex Villanueva in the November election, garnering 61.25 percent of the returns. In fact, with almost 1.4 million ballots, Luna beat his volcanic opponent by more than half a million votes. In 2018, Villanueva made history by becoming the first person in a century to bounce an incumbent L.A. County sheriff; he’s just made history repeat itself, though this time he was on the downside, as he was himself bounced by the electorate after one term.

Luna, who recently completed a seven-year stint as police chief of the city of Long Beach, does not appear to be a law enforcement visionary. As he takes over a department with 18,000 sworn and civilian employees, there is no clear agenda to reimagine the way that the LASD interacts with the 42 cities in L.A. County or the unincorporated areas where it provides public safety services.

The thing is, he doesn’t need to be a visionary. After four years of constant fighting between Villanueva and the County Board of Supervisors, which oversees the sheriff’s department and controls its budget, simply having a capable leader whose initial instinct is bridge-building should be a step forward for the county. Virtually the entire political infrastructure is exhaling as Villanueva’s constant combativeness gives way to the career competence Luna should bring to the role. 

Perhaps the best thing Luna can be is boring, and he may deliver on this, as those who know him best have implied. Robert Garcia, who spent eight years as Long Beach mayor and is now on his way to Congress, was positive about the new arrival while speaking at Luna’s swearing-in ceremony. But he hardly described the man as a thrill-the-troops leader, declaring, “Incoming Sheriff Luna is going to be one of the kindest people that you ever meet.”

Meanwhile, Ceci Alvarez, the new sheriff’s daughter assured the crowd, “My dad is a really good dude,” then detailed how he likes to relax in his recliner to watch TV, bond with the Maltese dogs his wife fosters, and at church, sits in his favorite seat in the back row and, uh, takes notes.

A kind guy. A friend of canines. A church note-taker: All good things, but they’re hardly indicative of a man capable of the combative discourse stemming from the LASD over the past several years, nor are they the hallmarks of a leader plotting revolutionary law enforcement change.

Alvarez also described how her dad reads books about Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. But during his 21-minute address on Saturday, Luna didn’t draw an inspiring quote from either of them. Instead, he plucked a line about the family from The Big Bang Theory. I’m not making that up—the new sheriff really referenced the broadest of broad network sitcoms. This came after the pinning ceremony, and when his wife affixed the sheriff’s star to his shirt, Luna let out a faux “Ouch!” In his long line of thanks, he mentioned County Assessor Jeffrey Prang, cracking, “Everyone here is going to get a discount on their taxes because he showed up.”

Yep, Luna is bringing dad jokes to the sheriff’s office.

There was more to the ceremony and while much of it was boilerplate, it was welcome, primarily because it was such an adult-in-the-room contrast to his predecessor. Luna pledged accountability and partnerships, telling the audience in the county headquarters building, “You’ll find I’m a very good listener.” He thanked the members of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and the department’s inspector general, with whom Villanueva constantly feuded.

Even Luna’s line, “We must eliminate deputy gangs,” was embraced because Villanueva essentially operated as if they were some grand fiction. This denial was despite reports about the unofficial groups, which are said to be particularly entrenched in jails and certain county sheriff’s stations, going back decades.

Recall that in the campaign that brought his surprise victory in 2018, Villanueva ran as a progressive reformer. Had he stuck to this path and built relationships in the halls of power, then he probably would have skated to four more years. Instead, he presumably assumed that because the then-board supported his opponent, they would forever be against him—which is ridiculous, because elected bodies are full of upset winners who learned to work in an existing system, and just about the last thing the supervisors want is the headache of constantly fighting the sheriff. As I have written before, we have all seen sore losers, but after his 2018 election, Villanueva was a sore winner.

The battles were legion. Villanueva’s first major move was trying to rehire a deputy whom previous Sheriff Jim McDonnell had fired after an investigation into harassment and domestic violence. There were disputes over the department’s budget and the alleged deputy gangs and whether the sheriff and his staff would testify in response to subpoenas. As time wore on relations grew more frayed, leading to the instantly infamous search warrants served on then-Supervisor Sheila Kuehl a month before the election. Villanueva’s wild descent made me think of cowboy Slim Pickens riding the nuclear bomb falling to the ground at the end of Dr. Strangelove.

The worst part is, all the fighting undercut the support Villanueva could have nurtured while it hampered any good he achieved for the county. Before his election, he was a mid-level lieutenant, and the rank-and-file generally got behind him. He also had backers in residents who appreciated his forceful attempts to clear homeless encampments from Venice and other neighborhoods. He had a base; dealing with politicians was not his forte. While that’s understandable, he shouldn’t have run for the job in the first place if that’s the case. The position is, at the base, a political job. If you don’t want to descend into the give-and-take and constantly be negotiating with other Type-A people, you’d better pick another path.

Luna appears to understand this. Throughout the campaign, he worked hard to play nice with power players across the region and earned the support of most establishment Democrats. Even if the union representing most deputies endorsed Villanueva, they barely threw cash at him, allowing the new sheriff to build a relationship. Luna may find it difficult to generate support in an organization distrustful of outsiders, but he’ll have a long honeymoon.

L.A. County’s new sheriff may not be exciting, but he understands the game, the gravity of the moment, and what has to come next. Toward the end of his speech, he stressed the need for collaboration: “We will fail if we take an Us vs. Them attitude. We cannot do that,” he told the audience. “We need less polarization and more partnerships.”

It was the right start. Now he has to deliver.

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