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The fight to become L.A. County sheriff

Episode Summary

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva took office four years ago in a stunning upset. This time, his opponent Robert Luna has him on the run. We look at the difference between the two.

Episode Notes

Alex Villanueva was elected as Los Angeles County sheriff in 2018 with support from progressives riding an anti-Trump wave. But since he took office, he has shifted to the right. His opponent in the November election, retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, leads in the polls.

But at a time when issues surrounding law enforcement are part of a national conversation, how much do they differ? We talk about it, as we hear from both candidates at a debate this month. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times law enforcement reporter Alene Tchekmedyian

More reading:

Luna, Villanueva trade charges in antagonistic L.A. sheriff debate

Alex Villanueva thought his ‘Quien es más Latino?’ strategy would sink his opponent. Nope

Sheriff Villanueva in tight race as challenger Robert Luna has edge in new poll

Episode Transcription

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Police brutality. Defund the police. Crime and homelessness. 

The election for L.A. County's top cop has become one of the most watched in the nation. 

Incumbent Sheriff Alex Villanueva won in 2018 with support from progressives riding an anti-Trump wave. But since he took office, he's shifted to the right.

SHERIFF ALEX VILLANUEVA: Actually, if you're not fighting against the defunding effort of the Board of Supervisors, you're not serving the community. You're actually acquiescing to the defunding scheme. And I am dead-set against that. 

GUSTAVO: And his office has been plagued by one scandal after another. 

MODERATOR 1: One of the things that came up quite a bit was deputy gangs. How big do you think an issue this is in the department right now? 

MODERATOR 2: Over the last five years, we have seen tens of millions of dollars taxpayers have had to pay out every year due to lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department. What do you say to that?

GUSTAVO: But can his opponent, retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, take away Villanueva’s spotlight and win?

CHIEF ROBERT LUNA: I feel the trajectory of crime in Los Angeles County, like it is in most major cities, is going up. What we need is a sheriff who takes accountability and gives you a plan for what they're doing to address crime.

GUSTAVO: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times”: essential news from the L.A. Times. It's Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.

Today as part of our coverage of the 2022 midterm elections, what L.A. County's sheriff race says about our country's evolving relationship to the people who are supposed to serve and protect us.

Alene Tchekmedyian covers the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Alene, welcome to “The Times.”

ALENE TCHEKMEDYIAN: Thanks so much for having me here. 

GUSTAVO: We should start by defining what exactly does the L.A. Sheriff's Department cover —  because people always confuse it with the city of Los Angeles, but it's really more L.A. County. 

ALENE: Yeah, the largest sheriff's department in the United States. So the Sheriff's Department covers the entire county, all the unincorporated areas and certain cities within the county that contract with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services. So they have 42 contract cities. They also run the jail system, which is the largest jail system in the country. 

GUSTAVO: So Alex Villanueva won his seat in 2018 in an upset over the then-sheriff, Jim McDonnell. And it was the first defeat of an incumbent in over a century. How did Villanueva pull that off?

ALENE: So at the time in Los Angeles, voters were really frustrated with President Trump and his hard-line immigration policies. And so Villanueva took advantage of that and really appealed to progressive voters at the time and promised to kick immigration authorities out of the jails. He visited Democratic clubs and made his pitch to them and got a lot of endorsements, including from the L.A. County Democratic Party.

GUSTAVO: And has Villanueva kept those promises he made to the progressives who helped get him elected?  

ALENE: So, he did remove federal immigration authorities from county jails. And during the pandemic, he also banned transfers of inmates from jail to immigration authorities. At first, because he was very concerned about the conditions at detention centers during COVID, and then he eventually made that ban permanent. He also was successful in bringing body-worn cameras to deputies. They are outfitted now at patrol stations with body cameras. They were a little bit late to doing that, but they did that under Villanueva. 

GUSTAVO: So what's Villanueva running on now? 

ALENE: So he has rebranded himself in the last year, year and a half as a more conservative, law-and-order candidate.

DEBATE TAPE: Welcome inside the Skirball Cultural Center and welcome to debate night in Los Angeles. I'm Elex Michaelson alongside Erika D. Smith, Oswaldo Borraez. And we've got Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Chief Robert Luna. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for being here. 

ALENE:  There was a debate recently where he said that he was going to make L.A. livable again. 

VILLANUEVA: The challenges have changed. Homelessness continues to grow out of control, violent crime from the George Floyd murder forward has just spiraled out of control and now public corruption is rearing its ugly head. All these things require a major commitment, on my part, on the part of the entire Sheriff's Department, to serve the community. That is what our goal is right here. 

ALENE: He's really trying to say that he is the one that can solve the homeless crisis and rising crime.

VILLANUEVA: You have a district attorney that was not prosecuting crime. His special orders are directly leaving dangerous people on the street, that revolving door, is, uh, prejudicing everyone. And on top of that, the defunding effort from the Board of Supervisors means I have less personnel.

ALENE: And he's railing sort of against the “woke left policies” that he has blamed for making these problems explode in L.A. the last couple years.

VILLANUEVA: And that has to end. We have to revert back to a law enforcement model and hold people accountable.

GUSTAVO: Where did that transformation come from?

ALENE: It's hard to say. We started to see it a couple years ago when the pandemic happened and he has never really had a great relationship with the county leaders who all lean very left. And so a couple years ago, we saw him say that he was going to increase the number of people who had concealed weapons permits. And that was sort of the start of this shift in his policies, it seemed like.

GUSTAVO: And what about his opponent, Robert Luna? What is he running on?

ALENE: So Robert Luna, he is the retired chief of the Long Beach Police Department. And he really has attacked Villanueva for his relationships with the Board of Supervisors, with oversight officials. And he's saying that he's the one that can come in and be a collaborator and work with all these different county entities in order to get things done.

LUNA: You cannot have a 77% increase in homicides the way the Sheriff's Department does and have a sheriff that blames a Board of Supervisors, that blames a district attorney, that blames everybody else.

GUSTAVO: So our colleague, Alene – Erika D. Smith, a columnist at The Times – she moderated the sheriff’s debate last week. And she brought up the issue of race, because activists and members of Villanueva’s own department have accused him of harboring animus towards Black folks. 

ALENE: The Sheriff's Department has had a long history of strained relationships with the Black community and it comes up, um, you know, anytime there's a controversial shooting or use of force that sort of sparks protests. And in terms of within his own department, he has — his No. 2, actually — was accused of using a racial slur that was the equivalent to the N-word in Japanese. And he is facing a couple of lawsuits from within the department, from employees who say that they were targeted by that word and by the No. 2. And the sheriff in that case declined to impose any discipline, even though it was recommended by an independent panel that he do so. He's also made sort of disturbing comments to you, Gustavo. 

GUSTAVO: Yeah, back in March, I sat down with the sheriff and we're supposed to talk about the role that Latinos play in his department. It's over 50% Latino, but he went on all these tangents about how the L.A. Times covers too much the Black community, not enough the Latino community, about how Black assailants were targeting Asians more than any other ethnicity when it came to anti-Asian hate crimes, about how the percentage of Black folks in the L.A. County jail was higher among the Black community than was among the Latino community. And that came back to hurt him. Black voters have been insinuating that he's anti-Black and even members of his own department had a meeting with him and said: “Hey, we are really concerned about the comments that you made to the Los Angeles Times when it came to the Black community.”

MODERATOR: How should Black voters respond to some of the comments you've made recently? 

VILLANUEVA: Black voters need to respond because our department is a model of inclusiveness. As sheriff, my first month in office, I promoted an African American female to the rank of division chief. I have four of the 12 are African American. I have 698 sworn employees who are African American.

GUSTAVO: And so the most recent polls show that Black voters support Villanueva the least of any ethnic group, with Latinos supporting him the most. So Alene, I saw a strategy where he was trying to portray Luna as anti-Black, but then also at the same time, try to portray him as not very Latino.  And that was a really telling strategy — he’s obviously trying to shore up his support with both of those constituencies, for his reelection. 

ALENE: Right. It was interesting. We saw him sort of dodge questions about his own record on these issues. And instead attack Luna on the same things.

MODERATOR:  How should Black voters interpret those comments? 

VILLANUEVA: Well, actually, I think the better question is how does people interpret the Ren family tree?

ALENE: Like he brought up an incident in Long Beach from many years ago where he accused Luna of mishandling an incident where someone had posted in the department's homicide unit a family tree. 

VILLANUEVA: And it's a tree full of individuals who were convicted, I guess, of murder. And they're all white faces, and the last face at the bottom, hanging on a noose, is a Black man.

ALENE: He had said that Luna mishandled this and then Luna responded and said that he actually appropriately reported the incident. 

LUNA: This is documented in the Long Beach Police Department. I was a police sergeant at that time working for a deputy chief of investigations. A very good detective brought it to my attention and immediately, I turned it over to my deputy chief and we turned it into an administrative investigation. 

ALENE: But then Villanueva retorted that the person that complained about the incident faced retaliation so there was a lot of back and forth there. And at one point during the debate, he even answered a question in Spanish.

VILLANUEVA: Speaking in Spanish.   

GUSTAVO: Yeah, that was weird. ’Cause his Spanish was like really technical Spanish, but his accent made him sound like, I don't know, really robotic, but everyone's like, why are you talking in Spanish? Uh, you know… 

MODERATOR: For the white boy here, what just happened?

GUSTAVO: Coming up after the break, more on the controversy surrounding this sheriff's race. 

GUSTAVO: Alene, almost from the start of Sheriff Villanueva’s term, there's been scandals that yourself and some of our colleagues at the Los Angeles Times have reported on. The most recent one involved dozens of Villanueva’s campaign donors and permits that they were granted to carry weapons in public. What did you find? 

ALENE: Yeah. So we compared lists of donors to his reelection campaign, to the list of people who have permits to carry concealed weapons. And we found that at least 50 people were on both lists. Some of them we reviewed the applications for, and they gave sort of questionable reasons for needing to be armed. One donor even said that he and his boss hike to remote areas in the mountains to meditate. And because there's no law enforcement readily available, he needed to be armed. So that was one of the examples of that. Or they received their permits way more quickly than the average wait time. Or they were assisted by two deputies who worked directly for Villanueva who are now actually under investigation.

GUSTAVO: Right, and here's Villanueva’s response at the debate to this uptick of concealed carry permits.

VILLANUEVA: We have to go through the thorough vetting process. We have to follow rigorously state law. We get audited and the results speak for themselves.

GUSTAVO: And Alene, you were there a couple of weeks ago when sheriff's deputies raided the home of L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who's a big Villanueva critic. What was the sheriff's justification for the raid?

ALENE: So those raids were focused on contracts that were awarded to a domestic violence nonprofit, Peace Over Violence, from Metro. So the Sheriff's Department is alleging that Supervisor Sheila Kuehl had a role in providing those contracts to the nonprofit, because the head of the nonprofit is her friend, Patti Giggans, who also serves on the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission, which has also been very critical of Villanueva. So there's been allegations that Villanueva is using this secretive public corruption unit to go after his political enemies. And Villanueva’s saying that everything's above board and there's legitimate public corruption that he's investigating. 

VILLANUEVA: When it comes to commenting on last week's search warrant, Sheila Kuehl, the supervisor, made the astonishing admission that she was alerted illegally by the inspector general and county counsel.

ALENE: So the attorney general actually is looking at that. He said that he would investigate whether Sheila Kuehl and Patti Giggans were improperly tipped off about the raids, but in doing that, he also took over the whole case. So he now is leading the investigation. The attorney general asked that the Sheriff's Department turn over all the evidence to their office in two weeks.

GUSTAVO: And then there was a recent $31-million lawsuit that was won by the survivors of the victims of the helicopter crash back in 2020 that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others. What happened there?

ALENE: Yeah. So deputies and firefighters took and shared photos of the crash that happened in 2020 improperly. One was shared at a bar in Norwalk to a bartender. At another event, firefighters were showing them off at an award ceremony. It ended up costing the county more than $31 million because they recently agreed to settle the remaining claims of one of the families who sued — Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash — were an additional almost $5 million. And so the trial that just ended involved Chris Chester and Vanessa Bryant, who sued saying that when deputies and firefighters shared the photos, her privacy was invaded, and a jury agreed. 

GUSTAVO: And what was Villanueva's defense of what had happened?

ALENE: So Villanueva had ordered all the photos deleted when he found out that they had been taken and shared, but the problem was they didn't really do a proper investigation. No one really did a forensic look at the photo. So it was impossible to know how far the photos spread, but Villanueva’s whole argument was that, in doing that so quickly, he prevented the photos from ever seeing the light of day. And the photos, as far as we know, have never been published online or on social media or been seen by the families who lost loved ones.

GUSTAVO: And then locally, one of the biggest scandals in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, one that predates Villanueva, is this issue of groups of deputies who have names like Bandidos, Vikings, Executioners, that many people call gangs but Villanueva insists aren't gangs. So what have both Villanueva and Luna said about these deputy gangs? 

ALENE: For decades, there have been allegations of these groups of deputies with matching tattoos. They celebrate shootings and glorifying an aggressive style of policing, allegedly. So Villanueva has denied that so-called gangs exist in the department. He takes issue with the phrase deputy gangs, but he's also taken credit for solving the problem or tackling the problem, saying that he's put into effect a policy that bans deputies from joining groups that violate people's rights. His critics have said that this policy has no teeth and he hasn't been doing enough. And so he's been criticized for that. Luna has said that he would do more to crack down on the problem with a zero-tolerance policy. At the debate last week, things got really heated and Villanueva even suggested that Luna had ties to a similar group like this in Long Beach.

LUNA: Northtown Rangers was a group that was in the Long Beach Police Department at North Division years ago that, by the way, we eradicated. 

MODERATOR: Sheriff, just to be clear, were you accusing him of being in a gang? 

VILLANUEVA: Well, I'm talking actual peace officers, cops from Long Beach, current and retired, and they say that was a problem and is still an issue with Long Beach. They've never addressed the issue of white supremacy and mistreatment of African Americans and minorities in general.

GUSTAVO: A federal judge once called the Vikings a white supremacist gang, and it's interesting to me how Villanueva simultaneously denies there's deputy gangs, but then also says within the same breath, most of the time, that he has solved the problem of deputy gangs.  

ALENE: He takes credit for implementing the first policy that bans these gangs, but it's kind of unclear what sort of teeth this policy has. We haven't really seen anyone be disciplined under it. 

GUSTAVO: More with Alene, after the break.   

GUSTAVO: Alene, there's so much attention paid to Sheriff Villanueva that people sometimes forget he has an opponent, Robert Luna. And you mentioned a bit about what Luna’s campaigning on — basically not being as alienating as Villanueva — but what’s his background?

ALENE: Yeah. So Robert Luna is way less known. He spent his whole career at the Long Beach Police Department, where he held every rank, including most recently the chief of police. He recently retired. He was born and spent some of his childhood in East L.A. 

LUNA: Growing up in East L.A., and I say growing up, ’cause I was born there, during the Chicano Moratorium and the anti-Vietnam protest, as a 5- and 6-year-old, when you see deputies using force on people with batons, I don't know about any of you in the crowd, I never forgot that. 

ALENE: Voters don't know a ton about him. So his biggest challenge will be getting his name out there.

GUSTAVO: Was he involved in any controversies in Long Beach?

ALENE: There were a couple controversies under his watch. There was the use of a text messaging application that officers were using that automatically deleted messages. And then in doing so weren't provided to the defense in criminal cases. So that was a controversy.

GUSTAVO: Finally, Alene, we are living in the post-George Floyd world. And as I hinted earlier, debates about defunding law enforcement or doubling down on it, they've been permeating local and national politics. How much of a referendum is this L.A. County sheriff’s race on those bigger talks about reforming law enforcement?

ALENE: So one thing that could be a referendum on the level of sheriff oversight that people want is this charter amendment proposal that supervisors have put on the ballot in November. They are asking voters to give them the power to remove the sheriff if they agree in a four-fifths vote that the person is unfit for office. So voters approve that, that would say something about the level of accountability that they want in that role. Villanueva has called the charter amendment proposal a power grab that undermines the will of the voters. So he has said that he's not for it. So we will see what happens in November. 

GUSTAVO: So who's expected to win? 

ALENE: You know, that's a hard question to answer. Villanueva had what was pretty widely seen as a disappointing showing in the primary where he only got 31% of the vote. That means that 69% of voters voted against him in the primary, but based on our most recent polling data, a lot of voters are undecided and the turnout will also be different in the general election. So it's hard to know what will happen.

GUSTAVO: Yeah, no matter who wins, you know, just given that the L.A. Sheriff's Department is the largest in the country, Alene, I think, you know, these conversations, these debates, are gonna continue.

ALENE: That's right.

GUSTAVO: Alene, thank you so much for this conversation.

ALENE: Thank you so much for having me on.

GUSTAVO: And that's it for this episode of “The Times”: essential news from the L.A. Times. Denise Guerra and David Toledo were the jefes on this episode and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. 

Special thanks to our co-sponsors of the sheriff's debate. Shoutouts to Fox 11 News. KPCC, Loyola Marymount University, Univision and the Skirball Cultural Center. Our show's produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown.  

Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.

By the way, we're building a communal audio altar for Día de los Muertos this year. We'd love to hear your story. Call (619) 800-0717 and leave us a voicemail with your own ofrendas. Tell us who you are, where you live and then give us a memory of your lost loved one. We plan to air an episode with those memories closer to Day of the Dead. 

Thanks in advance. And again, the number is (619) 800-0717. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Friday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.