Monday, May 9, 2022









        For the last three years, it’s been plain that some California sheriffs are de facto beyond the control of the county supervisors who are their nominal bosses.


        Some sheriffs won’t discipline deputies for out-of-control brutality, many still refuse to require deputies to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in places where that is demanded of all other county employees, most don’t discipline deputies who become involved in paramilitary or ideologically extreme groups like the Proud Boys and virtually all openly resent any efforts to cut their budgets, even a little.


        In some ways, the conflict between civilians and sworn officers mimics the constant push and pull between national military leaders and civilians who are their supposed bosses, but often act like sycophants and wanna-be generals or admirals.


        If there’s a leader among the scofflaw sheriffs in California, who run departments as disparate in size and geography as Riverside and Del Norte counties, it is Alex Villanueva, the first Latino sheriff of Los Angeles County and the prime example for defiant colleagues.


        Villanueva ran for office four years ago as a reformer who would reverse policies of his predecessors that let deputies get away with far more brutality and other irregularities than they could if they were officers in most local police departments, which often are closely watched by city governments.


        He evolved into something nearly the opposite of what he indicated he would be. Most recently, he displayed apparent ignorance of the California reporters’ shield law, which forbids arresting or otherwise legally harassing news reporters for refusing to divulge sources of information they publish.


        In that case, Villanueva threatened a criminal investigation of a Los Angeles Times reporter for possibly accepting stolen property after she publicized a leaked video showing a deputy kneeling for several minutes on the head (a la George Floyd) of a handcuffed prisoner who had just violently resisted that deputy.


        When every major press organization in the state decried his threat as a violation of the shield law and constitutional free press guarantees, Villanueva backed off, declaring there had been an “incredible frenzy of misinformation.”


        The Times and several witnesses alleged Villanueva first saw the months-old tape just days after the incident occurred, then covered it up. The sheriff denied that, saying he didn’t know of the incident until eight months after it occurred and then took swift action.


        Villanueva claimed the reporter illegally got the tape from a former top aide, Eli Vera, who is now one of four credible primary election candidates to replace him. The sheriff called the tape stolen property.


        But the furor over the kneeling deputy tape is only one item bedeviling Villanueva’s reelection attempt. Another: despite his Latino heritage, his department is often accused of treating immigrants unfairly. A state audit this spring claimed Los Angeles County is among several sheriff’s offices displaying bias against immigrants, women and LGBTQ+ persons, saying it is one of the agencies lacking safeguards against discriminatory attitudes. This, the audit said, puts the departments at “higher risk of…being unable to effectively address the ways in which their officers exhibit bias.”


        Latina Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, frequently at odds with Villanueva, in late April asked state Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate the sheriff’s “pattern of unconscionable and dangerous actions.”


        Bonta already had an ongoing active civil rights investigation of Villanueva’s office, with no visible consequences.


        That pretty much leaves it to voters in the primary to decide whether Villanueva’s behavior in office – and by extension that of many other California sheriffs – is OK.


        He has substantial opposition, with not only Vera, who was a sheriff’s chief deputy before being demoted when he declared his candidacy, but also Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Strong, Los Angeles Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo and former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna in the running.


        Chances are Villanueva, as an incumbent, will make it at least to the November runoff election. But if he doesn’t, or if he loses then, it will be a strong statement that voters – the ultimate bosses of all sheriffs – want them subjected to much more civilian control than many have accepted for the last few years.



    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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