Embattled Los Angeles sheriff spars with his opponent over law-enforcement gangs

Embattled Los Angeles sheriff spars with his opponent over law-enforcement gangs
Former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, left, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva share a lighter moment near the end of their debate as they both like the TV show Big Bang Theory and both are Dodgers fans.
The former Long Beach police chief Robert Luna, left, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva during a lighter moment near the end of their debate.Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • Los Angeles sheriff's candidates took the stage in a heated hourlong debate Wednesday night.

  • Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Robert Luna, a former police chief, discussed law-enforcement gangs.

  • Villanueva sidestepped the question and accused Luna of being in a gang.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva dodged the allegations of law-enforcement gangs in the department at a debate Wednesday night at the Skirball Cultural Center.

"'Deputy gangs' has become a political buzzword, and it's just like unicorns," Villanueva said. "Everybody knows what a unicorn looks like, but I challenge you, name one. Name a single deputy gang member, and I have yet to hear that."

Villanueva has been accused of enabling so-called deputy gangs, or unauthorized groups within the department, some of which are facing allegations of mistreatment.

Following reports and lawsuits, he has repeatedly denied their existence, and he's been accused of attempting to interfere with an investigation into them; a lawsuit filed by a sheriff's sergeant says Villanueva tried to stave off testimony from a witness.

The debate was between the two candidates for sheriff: the incumbent Villanueva and his challenger Robert Luna, a former Long Beach police chief. The two emerged as the top two candidates after Los Angeles County's primary held in June.

Luna, who has been endorsed by seven of his former primary challengers, argued that Villanueva's remarks proved his resistance to cracking down on deputy gangs.

"You just heard, he doesn't acknowledge they exist," Luna said. "Can't fix a problem you don't know exists."

He then went on to refer to two subgroups within the department: the Grim Reapers and the Banditos.

Luna brought up Villanueva's former chief of staff Larry Del Mese, now retired, who confirmed his involvement with the Grim Reapers in July during a public hearing for a civilian-oversight commission investigation into the groups.

Luna also pointed to allegations made by the retired Capt. Matthew Burson of the sheriff's department that Villanueva asked investigators not to look into the Banditos group.

Villanueva snapped back by saying: "Well, for one thing, he's going to have to explain what the North Town Rangers are. Ring a bell, Mr. Luna?"

Luna denied the allegation and said NTR had since been eradicated. Insider was unable to independently confirm the existence of this group or Luna's affiliation. Luna's campaign denied the allegation.

Villanueva said the sheriff's department had "taken all the action" it could legally without "violating the rights" of the department employees. He then doubled down on his original request asking people concerned about the deputy-gang issue to "Name a single one."

The hourlong heated debate concluded with a series of lighthearted questions that uncovered a couple of commonalities between the rivals: their love for the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" and the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.

"The debate showed a contrast with the current Sheriff, who has brought chaos, dysfunction, and scandal to the department, which has put our public safety at risk and eroded public trust," Luna's campaign told Insider in an email. "That's why 70% of voters in the primary voted to remove him as Sheriff."

The Long Beach Police Department, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, and Sheriff Alex Villanueva's reelection campaign didn't respond to a request for comment from Insider.

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