The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors postponed a decision Tuesday about whether it will consider avenues to remove Sheriff Alex Villanueva from his post before voters have a chance to do so in 2022.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl had recommended that the board round up its lawyers, inspector general, civilian oversight commissioners and acting CEO to look at options for removing or impeaching the sheriff.
“Under the current sheriff, hard-fought vital progress is being undone, and community trust is rapidly eroding,” their motion states. “While the board has been able to navigate challenging times with previous sheriffs, this sheriff’s actions demonstrate the dire need to explore options for removing a sheriff who refuses oversight or, at a minimum, mitigating damages cause by unacceptable behavior.”
However, when the matter came up for discussion, Ridley-Thomas said he was concerned that his colleagues had not had sufficient time to consider the motion, which was brought as a “green sheet” item, added to the agenda after the bulk of the board’s business.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger indicated her opposition to the motion would not change when it comes up for reconsideration in two weeks.
“Understand that I still stand by my belief that the sheriff is elected, and that in 2022, unless there’s (an) … effort to vacate that seat prior to that, that’s where the voters have a right,” Barger said, apparently allowing for the possibility of a recall campaign.
Supervisor Janice Hahn seemed to signal that she would also be a no vote. In addressing a related motion calling for an investigation into the deputy-involved shooting of a patient at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center shortly before the Villanueva matter was taken up, Hahn emphasized, “This one I can support.”
The board did unanimously agree to direct the inspector general to investigate the Harbor-UCLA shooting and directed county attorneys to report back on how the board might restrict the presence of law enforcement officers in county hospitals.
Several healthcare providers urged the board to do so. Dr. Hannah Janeway said she witnessed the fatal 2015 shooting of patient Ruben Herrera by a Los Angeles police officer at Harbor-UCLA. The city ultimately settled a lawsuit with Herrera’s family for $3.9 million, though the police department alleged that Herrera had reached for an officer’s gun.
“I knew that law enforcement should never be able to be in the position where they could take away a life in a hospital,” Janeway said. “The problem is that there’s never going to be enough training to train law enforcement to handle these situations in the ways that we handle them in the hospital.”
The supervisors also voted unanimously in favor of calling for the release of body-cam footage to the inspector general and a coroner’s inquest into the fatal deputy shooting of 25-year-old Fred Williams in South Los Angeles earlier this month. The sheriff’s department says Williams was armed with a gun, which he pointed at the deputy before the deputy shot him.
It should not be a surprise to anyone following county politics that the Board of Supervisors is frustrated with the sheriff, as Villanueva and even the staunchest defenders of law enforcement on the board have been in a battle for months about a host of issues ranging from unilateral decisions to reinstate terminated deputies to deputy cliques and budget management. Some of their disagreements have already ended up in court.
Some board members now seem prepared to raise the stakes, considering changes that would extend beyond Villanueva’s term. The motion calls for looking at all options to gain additional control, including amending the state constitution to move to an appointed, rather than elected sheriff.
Other possibilities to be considered include pulling some of Villanueva’s responsibilities and appointing a county police chief. The motion points to the fact that the city of Los Angeles has an appointed chief, rather than relying on an elected post.
“With an elected sheriff, the county has had to maneuver different ways to create checks and balances on the sheriff,” the motion states. “However, it has become increasingly clear that the sheriff’s blatant disregard for transparency and accountability requires a more forceful response.”
In comments to the board Tuesday, Villanueva struck a concilatory note.
“I can agree with two things, accountability and transparency are of the utmost importance. The facts show I have been more transparent, more accountable and offer greater access to members of our community than any prior L.A. County sheriff,” Villanueva said.
The sheriff said requests for records that were once confidential, but which state law now requires to be released, have skyrocketed, leaving his department understaffed to respond.
He vowed to work on a new agreement between his department and the inspector general’s office and also asked that the IG’s office report out on all of the deputy-involved shootings it has investigated, highlighting his department’s cooperation.
“We are a county family and when there is collaboration we can do great things,” the sheriff said, urging the supervisors to meet with him privately. “Let’s set aside the past and work out our differences … I look forward to finding common ground we can all stand together on in the interests of public safety and fiscal responsibility.”
In separate comments to the Los Angeles Times on Monday, the sheriff took a more aggressive stance.
“Rather than allow the voice of the voters to stand, those same members are now exploring ways to [undo] the results of a lawful election, outside of the established constitutional methods of: voter recall, grand jury indictment or defeating me in the next election.”
The board motion comes after the civilian oversight commission called for the sheriff’s resignation. Villanueva has dismissed the commission as a political tool — though it was instituted in response to jail violence that predated his tenure — and accused the group of punishing him for investigating potential corruption.
“It is becoming painfully obvious this commission is acting in retaliation against the sheriff for his efforts in investigating potential criminal conduct from county officials and for challenging the legality of subpoenaing the sheriff himself versus the LASD,” Villanueva wrote in a statement posted to the department website. “The sheriff will remain focused on serving the residents of Los Angeles County.”
In making the argument for taking more drastic action, Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl highlighted what they characterized as Villanueva’s “inability to balance the LASD budget,” pointing to his unilateral moves to cut youth programs and eliminate the parks services bureau, actions that have also drawn criticism from the deputies union.
For his part, the sheriff has said the board has forced him into the position of cutting programs to protect the most important elements of public safety. He has long accused the board of failing to give him a chance to succeed, pointing to their endorsement of his opponent as evidence of their alleged animosity toward him, and gone directly to the public in making his case.
In an Oct. 16 letter posted on his department’s website and titled “The Truth About LASD,” Villanueva laid out his accomplishments as sheriff, including a moratorium on ICE transfers without a judicial warrant and hiring a more diverse workforce. He pushed back against those who think he hasn’t done enough to eradicate deputy cliques, saying he has terminated 68 employees and supported criminal charges against 15 individuals in connection with related misconduct.
Criminal justice advocates said there is no way to verify whether or not such disciplinary action has actually taken place because the sheriff has shut down access to disciplinary records.
“We actually can’t confirm that anyone has been disciplined in this current department under Villanueva. We can’t confirm that any call for transparency and justice has landed,” Frontline Wellness founder Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson told the board.