Can LBPD’s former chief unseat a scandal-plagued incumbent sheriff?

Four years ago Alex Villanueva defeated an incumbent Los Angeles County Sheriff for the first time in a century. Now, retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna wants to do the same to Villanueva.

Though the LA County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office has yet to certify the election—officials are still processing more than 74,100 outstanding ballots—Villanueva’s nearly 31% of the vote means he’s on track for a runoff election with Luna, who took more than 25% of the vote. The remainder was split among the other seven candidates in the race.

At stake in November’s general election is who will run a department with a $3.3 billion budget that employs 18,000 people, 11,000 of whom are sworn deputies. It’s also a troubled department, with allegations of deputy gangs and jail abuse that date back decades.

Narrowing the race to a two-person field means Luna and Villanueva will now be in the spotlight, with their track records as police executives and remarkably different personal styles sure to be picked apart as they sell voters on competing visions of how to fix the largest sheriff’s department in the country.

Both men are Spanish-speaking Latinos in their mid-to-late 50s. Villanueva was the first Latino elected LA County Sheriff, and Luna was the first to be appointed LBPD Chief.

Villanueva, who holds the advantage of incumbency and publicity that comes with it, is originally from Chicago. Luna, the newcomer trying to introduce himself to the rest of LA County outside Long Beach, was raised in East Los Angeles.

Villanueva insists that he is the true liberal in the race, running against a phony Democrat who is actually a right-wing Republican in disguise.

Luna, who was a registered Republican until 2018 and has since re-registered as a Democrat, says he is the voice of sanity in the race, seeking to end Villanueva’s chaos, antagonism of county officials and Trumpian behavior.

In many ways, Luna is following in the footsteps of former Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was LBPD chief when he was elected sheriff in 2014, said Raphe Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA.

“It seems to me that Luna would have a lot in common with McDonnell,” said Sonenshein. In contrast to Villanueva, who has taken an aggressive stance against oversight of the department and has frequently and publicly clashed with the LA County Board of Supervisors, Luna would be “more amenable to civilian oversight, and would create less conflict with civilian officials.”

Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna gives a fist bump to Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia before Luna announced he would be running for Los Angeles County Sheriff at a press conference in Signal Hill Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

But McDonnell’s four years as sheriff present a cautionary tale for Luna. McDonnell, too, promised to reform the department in the wake of Sheriff Lee Baca, who was eventually sentenced to prison along with Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, McDonnell’s 2014 opponent (Baca himself got elected in 1998 in large part by promising to reform the department, which had been run by Sheriff Sherman Block since the early 1980s).

But McDonnell didn’t prove nearly as popular with deputies as Villanueva, who served in the department for 32 years. It wasn’t the only reason he lost to Villanueva in 2018, but it didn’t help him.

And the deputies love Villanueva. Back in 2018, Villanueva endeared himself to the LA County Democratic Party (which endorsed him) by talking about the need to keep Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents out of county jails—a position he still holds—but he also campaigned on the need to better protect deputies working in the jails.

For instance, reforms had taken away the deputies’ big metal Maglites because too often they were being used to beat incarcerated people, but during the 2018 election, Villanueva suggested that it was time to bring them back, according to the LA Times.

The deputies backed Villanueva against McDonnell, and they still back him today, according to the Association of Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs, which represents 8,000 deputies and district attorney investigators. In fact, 86% of the membership approved of endorsing Villanueva for reelection, according to an April statement from the organization.

Luna acknowledged Villanueva’s popularity with rank-and-file deputies but maintained that his approach to “principled leadership” will bring the deputies to his side.

“People want to work for a boss who has integrity,” he said. “Yes, you hold employees accountable, but you do it in a respectful way. I believe I will earn the respect of the deputies.”

Part of how he wants to earn that respect involves his goal of modernizing the Sheriff’s Department, especially in regard to the mental health of deputies.

“Policing is very stressful,” Luna said. In recent years, the LBPD has seen a string of suicides, prompting a push for mental health resources.

Luna said that as LBPD chief he helped “remove the stigma of anyone coming forward to ask for help” by bringing in counselors to help employees and their families. These counselors would even appear at the scenes of traumatic events, Luna said.

But Luna, though running today as a reformer, has his own critics from his time as LBPD chief. Though it’s true that during his tenure the LBPD saw a decrease in police shootings and use-of-force incidents, the city also saw increasing payouts for police violence, spending more than $30 million between 2014 and 2019 on litigation costs related to officer-involved shootings, use of force and in-custody deaths.

A handful of Black Lives Matter activists even disrupted Luna’s campaign kickoff event in December at a park in Signal Hill. They’ve criticized him for failing to hold officers accountable in a department where police shootings rarely resulted in any discipline.

Before taking office, Villanueva too was promising to be a reformer. In 2018, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, heartily approving of his promises to rein in the department and kick uniformed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents out of county jails, endorsed Villanueva.

But since that election, Villanueva has pivoted right, frequently calling out his “woke” opponents, refusing to enforce a COVID-19 vaccination mandate at the department, denying deputy gangs pose a problem or even exist, publicly criticizing journalists who reported on the department—even to the point of heavily implying during a news conference that an LA Times reporter was under criminal investigation—and openly feuding with the county supervisors, which controls his department’s budget.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. AP Photo by Stephanie Dazio.

His administration has also been beset by scandals involving deputies sharing photos of the aftermath of the crash that killed Kobe Bryant and accusations that Villanueva tried to cover up an incident where a deputy kneeled on the head of a handcuffed inmate.

In 2021, the LA County Democrats demanded that Villanueva resign, saying that he was “perpetuating a culture of police brutality.” The organization has so far not endorsed anyone in this election.

Villanueva’s tactics have earned him considerable scorn from criminal justice advocates like Lex Steppling, national director of campaign and organizing for the Los Angeles nonprofit Dignity and Power Now, which, since 2011, has called for major reforms of the Sheriff’s Department and county jails.

“It goes without saying that Villanueva has inspired zero hope,” said Steppling. “I’m surprised that he treats everyone with so much contempt. He has created so much anger and disgust around Los Angeles.”

But Villaneuva is also a very skilled and aggressive campaigner, said Sonenshein.

Villanueva is an “energetic politician who can campaign very well,” said Sonenshein. “It’s always a mistake to underestimate Villanueva politically.”

Villanueva began campaigning against Luna before primary voting even concluded.

On June 4, Villanueva showed up at the ruins of Men’s Suit Outlet in Downtown Long Beach, the only building that burned during the unrest that beset the city after George Floyd’s murder.

The campaign stunt was a rerun of sorts for Villanueva, who’d shown up and taken pictures with officers in riot gear as the looting unfolded in May 2020. In contrast to Luna, who caught criticism from his own officers for being underprepared and under-aggressive in response to the violence, Villanueva has positioned himself as the tough-on-crime solution for exactly that kind of event.

A day after his June 4 visit to the still-charred store, Villanueva’s campaign also released a 30-second ad focused on Luna. It mentions the settlements the city paid to the families of victims of police shootings, as well as the LBPD’s sharing of license plate data with ICE. The ad calls Luna a “right-wing Republican” who is just “pretending to be a Democrat.”

In an interview shortly after the primary, Javier Gonzalez, Villanueva’s campaign manager, said Luna “failed Long Beach” as chief of police, and would do the same in the much bigger role as county sheriff.

During the 2020 unrest in Long Beach, Luna “stood down and allowed businesses to burn because he didn’t want to be called a racist,” said Gonzalez. “And that’s cowardly.”

In response to Gonzalez, Luna’s campaign released a statement highlighting Mayor Robert Garcia’s post-unrest assessment, saying that the LBPD had “acted heroically” during the looting and vandalism that broke out following largely peaceful protests for racial justice.

“In November, voters will decide if they want to continue with Sheriff Villanueva’s chaos and mismanagement which has put our public safety at risk, or elect Chief Luna, who has a proven track record of success reducing violent crime, officer-involved shootings, and citizen complaints alleging excessive force in Long Beach,” read the Luna campaign statement.

Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna reacts during a press conference about the latest surge in gun violence in the city in Long Beach Friday, July 2, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

In contrast to Villanueva’s campaigning chops, this is Luna’s first-ever attempt at elected office. Villanueva has, so far, raised far more contributions than Luna. In the first five months of this year, he brought in more than $718,000 compared to Luna’s $219,000, according to the LA County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office.

On the flip side, Luna has been endorsed by the Southern California News Group, Los Angeles Times, as well as Mayor Robert Garcia, all nine members of the Long Beach City Council and the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

Two fellow Sheriff candidates, LAX police chief Cecil Rhambo and retired LASD commander Eli Vera, also endorsed Luna following the June 7 primary, according to Luna’s campaign. They earned about 8% and 4% of the vote, respectively, according to the latest voting tally. Representatives from the Rhambo and Vera campaigns didn’t respond to inquiries by press time.

Sonenshein also noted that the job of sheriff is different than that of police chief. Police chiefs like Luna are usually appointed by public officials, and any campaigning they do is typically bureaucratic and behind the scenes.

But sheriffs are usually popularly elected, and can be extremely difficult to defeat in an election, Sonenshein noted.

For that reason, Matt Lesenyie, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, says that despite Villanueva having to campaign in a runoff, he remains well-positioned to win reelection.

Lesenyie doesn’t think the current scandals plaguing the Sheriff’s Department hurt Villanueva that much. What’s more, Lesenyie said the November election will see an “increase in poorly informed voters” that will favor Villanueva simply because he’s the incumbent.

As the incumbent, Villanueva can “unofficially campaign” by just showing up in uniform, which is an enormous advantage over Luna, according to Lesanyie.

By contrast, Luna is campaigning as a “moderate reformer,” according to Sonenshein. He is running as a voice of reason who would largely cooperate with oversight authorities and elected officials, Sonenshein said.

“What gives Luna his best chance is how much dissatisfaction there is with Villanueva,” Sonenshein said. “Luna wouldn’t have a chance if there wasn’t a lot of dissatisfaction.”

Although Luna frequently points to his experience as LBPD chief as showing he has the management skills to lead the Sheriff’s Department, the two departments are vastly different in size. The LBPD has just over 800 sworn officers and about 1,200 total employees while the Sheriff’s Department employs nearly 11,000 deputies and about 18,000 employees.

Put another way, the LASD’s budget of about $3.3 billion is nearly 12 times that of the LBPD. The jails portion of the LASD budget alone is more than three times the entire Long Beach PD budget.

The LASD runs what’s been described as the largest jail system in the world, with about 13,000 incarcerated people spread out over seven facilities, according to the most recent head count.

They are also violent jails and have been for decades. By 2012, there were so many complaints and allegations of deputy abuse that the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the department. The suit alleged that then-Sheriff Baca knew and helped cover up repeated instances of deputy abuses against people incarcerated in county jails.

The county settled the suit two years later and agreed to a series of reforms, including regular outside monitoring of the jails. The effort helped, but didn’t end the violence. In fact, in April court-appointed monitors reported that LASD deputies punching incarcerated people in the head was a “persistent problem,” according to the LA Times.

Luna has also called out the subcultures of deputy gangs within the Sheriff’s Department. In existence for the last five decades, deputy gangs at the East LA and Compton stations made headlines over the last few years following a string of lawsuits and complaints from deputies and families of people shot who alleged the groups received special treatment from management and were responsible for racist and sexist harassment as well as threats of violence and planting evidence or even guns on suspects, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times and New Yorker.

The Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commission is currently conducting a six-month investigation of the gangs. Luna has said he will ask for state and federal investigators to look at the issue and hold people accountable.

“The headlines should not be about deputy gangs,” said Luna, who has criticized the brash style of Villanueva.

For his part, Villanueva acknowledges that there have long been subgroups of deputies within the department, but he refuses to call them “gangs.” He says that the definition of “gang” requires three or more people who are united to commit crimes, and that it’s never been proven in court that any alleged deputy subgroup actually committed a crime, according to the New Yorker.

Steppling of Dignity & Power Now said it’s “exhausting” how year after year he sees so many reports and media accounts of violence and scandal at LA County jails, but then nothing substantial happens. Issues with the jails have come up repeatedly in Sheriff’s races—deputy abuse, deputy gangs, overcrowding—but nothing ever seems to change, he said.

The Sheriff’s Department, Steppling said, “is beyond repair. It’s tempting to blame it all on Villanueva, but it’s beyond him.”

How those deeply ingrained problems may sway voters in November remains to be seen.

“People know the Sheriff’s Department won’t be fixed by Luna, but people are also tired of hearing Villanueva talk,” Steppling said.

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.
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