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Self-Styled Whistleblower vs. Outsider’s Insider: Untangling the Race for L.A. County Sheriff

10:54 AM PDT on October 31, 2018

Courtesy of ABC7.

This is Part 8 of our L.A. Taco Voter Guide focusing on the L.A. County race for sheriff between incumbent Jim McDonnell and challenger Alex Villanueva.

[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]os Angeles County is getting a truly competitive race for Sheriff this election and a number of possible firsts.

Alex Villanueva, a retired lieutenant sheriff and a self-styled whistleblower, could become the first challenger to unseat an incumbent sheriff – in Jim McDonnell – in more than 100 years. He could also be the first Spanish speaking sheriff in more than 100 years, as well as the first Democrat in over a century. Both candidates promise to reform a sheriff’s department that is riddled with scandals.

McDonnell himself achieved a political feat unheard of in L.A.’s calcified political climate when he was elected county sheriff in 2014 by becoming the first Los Angeles county sheriff in a century not to have risen through the department's ranks. McDonnell is an LAPD man, having joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1981 at the age of 21. He climbed up the ranks there obtaining every rank position except chief. He then became chief of the Long Beach Police Department, before getting elected sheriff in 2014. He has 37 years of law enforcement experience.

McDonnell, running for re-election, currently presides over a sheriff's department that is in deeply troubled waters.

Courtesy of LASD.
McDonnell, courtesy of LASD.

Most recently, the department was accused of profiling Latino motorists on Interstate 5 in thinly veiled traffic stops. There were also racially charged deputy involved shootings and suspicious deaths inside county jails. These disturbing allegations are on top of a succession of jaw dropping and utterly unprofessional behaviors, including charges against a sergeant for allegedly demanding sex in exchange for time off, questionable purchase of a impounded Audi A4 by an assistant sheriff, and a video of a deputy ignoring a “shots fired” call so he could talk on the phone with his girlfriend. Then there was the incident of a deputy alleged to have raped inmates at the women’s jail in Lynwood.

The bad behavior of many sheriff’s deputies continues to get showcased time and time again, embarrassing McDonnell, who in turn again and again vows to eradicate it. But let's not forget how McDonnell got the job. Former Sheriff Leroy “Lee” Baca was forced to resign in 2014 before getting convicted as a result of an FBI corruption probe in 2017.

Baca's right-hand man Paul Tanaka was similarly convicted.

Need For Reform

[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]aca was sentenced to three years in federal prison and Tanaka to five for obstruction of justice in connection with an FBI probe into abuse of jail inmates by deputies. The same federal investigation led to felony convictions of more than a dozen other LASD personnel.

Sure, there will always be problems in an organization with more than 18,000 employees, but the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t seem to be capable of getting out from under all of its problems. McDonnell deserves some credit for at least not making excuses and holding some of deputies accountable.

But at best, McDonnell’s makeover remains a work in progress. McDonnell describes himself as a “progressive police leader” – even though he used to be a registered Republican – and he has endorsements from L.A.’s top liberals, such as Mayor Eric Garcetti, District Attorney Jackie Lacey, and L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis.

But does he deserve another term?

RELATED: Sheriff's Deputies Shoot and Kill Teen in South L.A., Leave Body Lying for Hours

Poor Recruitment & Low Morale

[dropcap size=big]D[/dropcap]eputies in L.A. County are notoriously overworked and understaffed, a factor that can only contribute to the rising pile of scandals . Add on top of that, police abuse controversies and officer involved shootings across the country, it’s no wonder morale is low and recruitment of qualified people into law enforcement careers is getting more difficult. All of this means, the Sheriff’s Department could be facing as many as 1,071 vacancies, according to one report.

Both Villanueva and McDonnell agree much more is needed to recruit more deputies and retain the ones with years of experience currently working in the department. McDonnell came in as a reformer, but morale continues to decline during his tenure, according to a survey conducted by the Professional Peace Officers Association, a union that includes 6,000 employees of the Sheriff's Department.

“The chief problem in the recruitment of deputies is the man standing beside me, Jim McDonnell,” Villanueva said during the candidate debate hosted by the PPOA. “We should be hiring more deputies instead of bragging about firing them.”

RELATED: Sheriff’s Deputies Profiled Thousands of Drivers on the 5 Freeway Through the Grapevine: Our Analysis

The department hires about 480 deputies annually, drawn from eight academy classes with an average class size of 80 recruits and an approximate 25 percent attrition rate. Subtract from that the number of deputies who retire or resign, and it isn’t enough to alleviate the staffing crisis. Deputies already work mandatory overtime doing multiple jobs that in some cases they are not properly trained to do.

Outsider’s Insider vs Whistleblower

[dropcap size=big]V[/dropcap]illanueva talks passionately about his claim that he blew the whistle on Lee Baca, which eventually led to the FBI investigation into abuses in the jails. He also claims his outspokenness stifled his career advancement in the Sheriff’s Department.

Villanueva became a deputy in 1986, and obtained the rank of lieutenant before retiring. He’s only the fourth candidate in over 100 years to force a run-off for county sheriff. He did it by reaching out to Latino organizations, emphasizing outreach on issues of immigration, LASD reform, and over-incarceration.

He leveraged his bilingual ability to great effect at campaign events. He openly ran as a Democrat, and courted local Democratic Party endorsements. Even though many individual Democratic politicians have endorsed McDonnell, the county party and local party organizations have endorsed Villanueva. He also nabbed the endorsement of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents sworn-in deputies.

Alex Villanueva (left) with U.S. Senate candidate Kevin De Leon. Courtesy of Alex Villanueva for Sheriff.
Alex Villanueva (left) with U.S. Senate candidate Kevin De Leon. Courtesy of Alex Villanueva for Sheriff.

SB 54: 'Sanctuary State' Law

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he role of ICE in local law enforcement is huge in the Sheriff’s election. McDonnell has received criticism from immigrant advocates for cooperating with ICE — and for undermining SB54, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018 — a claim he vigorously denies.

“What was ultimately signed by Gov. Brown was what was we were doing here in Los Angeles County all along,” Sheriff McDonnell said during the candidate debate in July. “We don’t stop people on the street and ask them what their immigration status is. That isn’t our role. That’s the role of the federal government.”

The number of people handed over to ICE from county jail decreased to 0.63 percent from 1.5 percent from last year, according to Sheriff McDonnell during the debate. Despite that, Villanueva picked up the endorsement of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, also known as CHIRLA. The group has since vowed campaign for Villanueva and tap into 1,000 volunteers for canvassing and phone banking.

Villanueva, who speaks Spanish at campaign events, has reached out to Latino communities in Southeast L.A. and in the San Fernando Valley for support.

Courtesy of Alex Villanueva for Sheriff.
Courtesy of Alex Villanueva for Sheriff.

'Cliques' & Skull Tattoos

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he Sheriff's Department has been slammed for a culture leading to tattoos worn by deputies marking membership in allege “cliques.” Stories about similar cliques have emerged inside police agencies in Oakland, New Orleans and in the Los Angeles Police Department, but nothing as extensive as those claimed in LASD. It remains unclear how pervasive they are, and some deputies defend tattoos as fostering morale, arguing that they don’t signify an outlaw culture. The two candidate have distinctly different approaches on this issue.

Villanueva criticized the civilian oversight commission probe into these deputy cliques. “I worked with many people with these tattoos at different stations, and they were the most honorable ethical people I have ever worked with,” Villanueva said during the candidate debate. “People took offense to that within the organization, because they lost their unit logo, their station identity. Those are the things that don’t make sense. They undermine morale.”

McDonnell has said he wants to eradicate the tattoos from the culture within the Sheriff’s department. “No apologies for doing that, because we see what happens when you go to court and you’re asked, ‘Do you have a tattoo?’ If you have a tattoo, it becomes Exhibit A and we write the check,” McDonnell said. “If we sanction tattoos that exhibit violence, racism or any of things all of us abhor, then where does that put us?”

During this candidate debate, McDonnell admitted to promoting individuals to command staff positions who also wear similar clique tattoos.

Given the mess the Sheriff’s department is in and all the problems that the county faces — not to mention the historic nature of this year’s election — it can hardly be overstated how important it is everyone get out and vote on Nov. 6.

RELATED: Our Entire Voter Guide, In One Place!

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