Monday, August 8, 2022






        There is no doubt that a local measure on the Los Angeles County ballot this fall would make future sheriffs there fully answerable to county supervisors.


        Sheriffs would continue to be elected independently, but if the proposal passes, they could be fired with four votes on the five-member county board. If this idea succeeds in the first vote of its kind in California, it will very likely spawn a series of similar measures in other counties, probably very soon.


        That’s because, while current Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva is the unquestioned leader of scofflaw sheriffs in this state, he has plenty of company in that category.


        The most obvious recent misconduct by multiple sheriffs came at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, before vaccines were widely available and before powerful anti-viral drugs like Pfizer’s Paxlovid were common.


        At the end of 2020, the list of California law enforcement agencies refusing to enforce stay-at-home, crowd-size and masking orders from state and county health officials numbered at least two dozen. Of the five counties with the highest seven-day average COVID-19 cases in the week leading up to Christmas 2020, only one had taken strong enforcement measures to protect public health.


        Wherever those measures were enforced, they proved extremely effective: Statistics show that if California had followed the laissez faire, everything-stays-open approach used in Florida and some other states, more than 40,000 additional Californians would have died atop the already severe COVID death toll, which now approaches 93,000.


        None of that moved Villanueva to enforce anything, even such a basic protective tactic as indoor masking. The same for sheriffs in nearby Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.


        But nothing happened to Villanueva, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, then-San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner John McMahon or Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco.


        Other sheriffs also defied their county boards on various issues, but Villanueva – considered an underdog in his current reelection bid – did it most often, even ignoring subpoenas to appear before the county’s Civilian Oversight Commission.


        Said the Los Angeles County supervisors in a statement that accompanied the motion to place their new measure on the fall ballot, “The current sheriff has been openly hostile to oversight and transparency and (resisted) oversight structures by consistently obstructing those systems of checks and balances.”


        Aside from refusing to enforce public health orders, Villanueva also has been criticized for failure to investigate alleged gangs among his deputies and for threatening to arrest a reporter who leaked a video of a deputy kneeling (a la George Floyd) for several minutes on the head of a handcuffed prisoner who had just violently resisted that deputy.


        If Villanueva’s behavior subjects him or his successors to possible removal by county officials who have never before bossed the sheriff’s department, expect similar attempts at control over sometimes scofflaw sheriffs from Sacramento to Riverside to Del Norte county.


        Villanueva, as expected, through a spokesperson calls the ballot proposal, which takes the form of a charter amendment, an “illegal motion that would allow corrupt supervisors to intimidate sheriffs from carrying out their official duties to investigate crime. Creating a pathway for politicians to remove a duly elected sheriff is a recipe for corruption (that) suits their political agenda.”


        But the proposal allows removal of a sheriff only for specified shortcomings, including flagrant or repeated neglect of duties, misappropriation of public funds, falsification of official statements or documents or obstruction of investigations into the sheriff’s conduct by the inspector general or the county Civilian Oversight Commission.


        Several current Los Angeles supervisors accuse Villanueva of most of those offenses, including a midsummer refusal to testify before the oversight commission’s public hearings on deputy gangs.


        So far, Villanueva’s main defense has been to call the supervisors pushing the ballot measure “hacks” bent on turning the sheriff into a “hand-puppet.”


        But name-calling probably won’t resolve this issue, which could end up with voters rejecting the “reform” proposal, while also ousting Villanueva. That, of course, would send a thoroughly mixed signal to other parts of the state whose sheriffs also defy laws and public health orders they don’t like.


    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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