L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva concedes, wishes 'the incoming sheriff well'

Villanueva's concession comes on the heels of a ballot measure expected to pass that gives board members the power to fire a sitting sheriff


By Alene Tchekmedyian
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Robert Luna, a little-known retired police chief from Long Beach, will be the next sheriff of Los Angeles County after soundly beating the incumbent, Alex Villanueva, who leaves office in the wake of a single term marred by the upheaval and discord he sowed.

With Luna holding a commanding 20% lead and the number of ballots yet to be counted shrinking by the day, Villanueva conceded the race Tuesday.

“I want to wish the incoming sheriff well,” Villanueva said at the end of a rambling concession speech. “The safety of the community depends on him succeeding.”

Dislike for Villanueva and his antagonistic style of rule played out elsewhere on the ballot as well: Measure A, which rewrites the county charter to give the Board of Supervisors the power to fire a sitting sheriff, looks likely to pass overwhelmingly, with about 70% of voters approving it so far. Supervisors put the measure to voters after years spent battling with Villanueva.

The results were a resounding rebuke of Villanueva’s four chaotic years in office — a tenure during which he morphed from an upstart candidate buoyed by the support of progressive voters into a conservative, combative lawman who clashed endlessly with elected officials and others who oversee him and the department.

Luna’s victory means another turnover in leadership for the Sheriff’s Department, which will see its fourth sheriff since Lee Baca resigned eight years ago amid a federal corruption probe that ultimately sent him to prison.

Luna is expected to be sworn in as the county’s 34th sheriff in a ceremony next month. He inherits a large, unwieldy law enforcement agency — one of the nation’s biggest — that runs a network of jails and patrols swaths of the sprawling county with stations from Lancaster to Catalina Island.

It is an organization that historically has operated in the shadow of the Los Angeles Police Department, but is equal both in size and the role it plays in public safety. Luna will deal with long-running problems and the fallout from recent scandals that erupted during Villanueva’s watch.

After decades of neglect, the network of jails will present Luna with no shortage of issues as they have his predecessors. Treatment for the thousands of mentally ill people housed in the facilities is woefully insufficient, while the facilities in general are badly outdated.

Controversial shootings and other misconduct continue to be an issue as well. The Board of Supervisors recently agreed to pay $47.6 million to settle several lawsuits alleging excessive force or negligence by sheriff’s deputies. The payouts included $8 million for the family of Andres Guardado, whose killing in 2020 by a deputy prompted large protests.

Perhaps Luna’s most immediate challenge will be moving the department beyond the turmoil caused by Villanueva’s combative approach.

He will need to rebuild the department’s ties to public agencies across the county and Los Angeles city that Villanueva systematically ruptured by attacking other elected officials for being part of what he saw as an overly liberal “weaponized political machine” that allowed homelessness and crime to flourish. At the top of that list are the county supervisors, who control the sheriff’s budget and clashed fiercely with Villanueva, as well the civilian oversight commission the supervisors appoint to watch over the Sheriff’s Department.

There are the criminal investigations the Sheriff’s Department opened into some of Villanueva’s most ardent critics that led to widespread accusations that he was abusing the power of the office to attack adversaries. The state’s attorney general has taken over those investigations and is looking into the misconduct claims.

And lawsuits by top-ranking sheriff’s officials alleging Villanueva covered up an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of a jail inmate remain unresolved.

The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, meanwhile, is holding public hearings into gang-like groups of deputies that have operated in the department for decades. Villanueva came under fire for his handling of the problem, both downplaying its seriousness and claiming to have taken decisive steps to address it. He has also rebuffed subpoenas from the commission to answer questions about the groups and other problems under oath.

Luna, who headed the Long Beach police for seven years before retiring last year, campaigned as the level-headed alternative to Villanueva, promising to work collaboratively with the county officials and department watchdogs Villanueva chose to make into enemies.

But he remains largely unknown outside Long Beach and, as an outsider to the department, he’ll face the challenge of winning over a rank-and-file that grew to appreciate Villanueva’s brash style. During the pandemic, for example, Villanueva refused to enforce the county’s vaccine mandate — a move widely cheered by deputies.

Despite his relative obscurity to most L.A. County voters, Luna was long considered the front-runner in the race. Villanueva’s showing in the June primary — he received 31% of the vote — was considered a poor result in a race that historically has favored the incumbent. Luna finished second in the primary, receiving 26% of the vote.

At Luna’s election night party last week, Gregory Sanders, a senior pastor of the Rock Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, waded through the crowd of several hundred people. He said Luna would be a clear upgrade.

“His heart is in the right place, to create a space where our community has faith in the sheriff,” he said.

©2022 Los Angeles Times.
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