LA County supervisors will look at options to remove sheriff before his term is up

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 today to look at options for removing elected Sheriff Alex Villanueva as the county’s top lawman, rather than waiting to see if voters will do so in 2022.

Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn dissented, saying the matter should be left in the hands of Los Angeles County voters. Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl co-authored the motion recommending that the county direct its lawyers, inspector general, civilian oversight commissioners and acting CEO to look at possible avenues for removing the sheriff or cutting back his responsibilities.

The supervisors’ vote came on the same day the Los Angeles County coroner’s office announced it would open a formal inquest into the death of Andres Guardado, the 18-year-old shot by a sheriff’s deputy in the Gardena area on June 18.

The coroner appointed former appellate court justice Candace Cooper to conduct the inquest into the circumstances, manner and cause of Guardado’s death, which has been controversial, sparking a lawsuit and protests.

The inquest, which is the first in Los Angeles County in more than 30 years, marks an escalation in the situation. The coroner’s office has already released an autopsy report over the sheriff’s objections. It showed Guardado was shot five times in the back.

It’s one of many controversies Villanueva has endured during his tenure. He’s also clashed with local officials including the board of supervisors and former county CEO.

Everyone on the board has raised concerns about Villanueva’s lack of accountability, including his willingness to flout subpoenas issued by oversight agencies. Yet the board split on the issue of seeking ways to remove him, with both sides claiming the moral high ground of supporting democratic principles.

Ridley-Thomas—who tabled consideration of the motion two weeks ago when Barger and Hahn first indicated their opposition—said the idea of an elected sheriff was outdated.

“Despite the exponential growth of the county and tremendous advances of modern-day policing, we are still beholden to this anachronistic model of law enforcement,” Ridley-Thomas said, reading from an opinion piece he wrote in 2014 for the Huffington Post. “We hold a popularity contest for arguably our most important law enforcement position. The result is that we have something worse than democracy—we have the illusion of democracy.”

Supervisor Janice Hahn said democracy dictated that voters settle the matter.

“It’s no secret that this board does not see eye-to-eye with this particular sheriff, and I have to point out that it’s not for lack of trying… this sheriff has acted like he’s not accountable to anyone but himself,” Hahn said. However, “(voters) can recall him or they can vote him out when his term’s up. That’s how democracy works … I don’t think it’s our job to remove an elected official.”

The changes under consideration include amending the state constitution to move to an appointed, rather than elected sheriff. Many activists said the current sheriff is just the latest flawed leader of the department and expressed support for a permanent shift to an appointed post.

A constitutional amendment to appoint rather than elect the Los Angeles County sheriff would likely affect all 58 counties and bring them inline with city jurisdictions, which appoint police chiefs. Other possibilities include pulling some of Villanueva’s responsibilities and appointing a county police chief, which Kuehl said she found most interesting.

Villanueva addressed the board during public comment, offering a wide-ranging account of all he has accomplished, including deploying body cameras and removing ICE from jails.

He closed with a plea to work together. Barger said she planned to take the sheriff up on his offer to meet and would aim to move forward in a spirit of cooperation.

“We cannot make long-term policy decisions based on the short-term personalities that be,” Barger said. “I do not support many of (his) actions and have significant concerns with (Villanueva’s) ability to appropriately lead our sheriff’s department, but I do support the office, and more importantly, I support our personnel.”

The civilian oversight commission has 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 county corruption.

As part of their 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.

The board also voted Tuesday to request that the sheriff and the parks department sign a new agreement by the end of this month to provide security at county parks through June 30, 2021. If a new agreement is not finalized by Nov. 30, the acting CEO will have the authority to reallocate roughly $18.5 million from the sheriff’s budget to the parks department to pay for security services.

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