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Voters should keep two goals in mind when deciding how to mark their ballot for Los Angeles County sheriff in the June 7 primary election. The first is to remove the destructive, costly embarrassment that is incumbent Sheriff Alex Villanueva by voting for one of his eight challengers. And the next is to pick the challenger with the experience and integrity to reverse the department’s slide into chaos and rebuild trust with the public that Villanueva has destroyed with his lies, self-serving stunts and general incompetence.
Several current and former sheriff's deputies and command staff who are justly angry at Villanueva lined up to take his place, but most are steeped in the very same dysfunctional culture that has marked the department for decades. And most challengers lack the leadership experience needed to pilot a law enforcement organization of nearly 10,000 deputies and as many unsworn staff.
One candidate — former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna — has a stellar law enforcement record from outside the Sheriff’s Department, including leadership roles in national police organizations with a reform bent. After decades of sheriff scandals and ineptitude, and more than three years of Villanueva’s attempts to resist civilian oversight and scuttle hard-won reforms, Luna may well be the department’s last best chance. The Times recommends a vote for Luna for sheriff.
Long Beach is Los Angeles County’s second-largest city, and Luna is widely praised there for his work as police chief for seven years, capping a 36-year law enforcement career that concluded in late 2021. In marked contrast to the current sheriff, Luna worked productively with the city’s leaders and his officers alike, supports accountability and civilian oversight and is generally well-regarded by multiple segments of his very diverse city. His leadership role in national police organizations has instilled a healthy respect for innovation and an understanding of the mixed feelings harbored by citizens who have a natural inclination to trust and respect police but often find their faith in law enforcement wavering after seemingly endless reports of excessive force, corruption and racism.
Luna says that his career is in part a response to such mixed feelings in his own community as he was growing up in unincorporated East Los Angeles, which is patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department. He recalls being a big fan of TV’s "Adam-12" — the 1970s cop show that featured heroic and polite officers who treated everyone with respect, including those they arrested for terrible crimes. Why, Luna asked himself, do sheriff’s deputies not treat his Spanish-speaking, law-abiding parents — his immigrant father from Sinaloa and his Modesto-born mother, a child of farmworkers from Michoacán — with the same respect? Like many first- and second-generation Latino families, his was split among those who were angry at law enforcement and those, like him, who joined it and tried to improve it.
His experience and credibility separates Luna from most of the other challengers. Eli Vera, the retired commander who is backed by one of two sheriff’s employee unions, is spot-on in his withering critique of the incumbent but envisions a department in which all is as it once was, before Villanueva, and perhaps even before the disgraced and convicted Sheriff Lee Baca. The same is more or less true of LAX police chief and former Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo, who was part of Baca’s command team, and retired Capt. Britta Steinbrenner, former Capt. Matt Rodriguez and current Deputy Karla Carranza. Like the insider candidates, state parole agent April Saucedo Hood recognizes Villanueva’s fecklessness in combating crime but also lacks a forward-looking vision.
Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Strong has a better grasp than they do of the direction law enforcement must go to more effectively serve the county’s people, but he lacks Luna’s leadership experience. Strong has a lot to offer, and if the department can be turned around he may one day make a good sheriff. But it’s Luna who is best prepared to take on the task today.
Jim McDonnell was likewise a Long Beach police chief when he successfully ran for sheriff in 2014 and began to put in place a series of disciplinary and oversight reforms in response to misconduct so sweeping that it resulted in the conviction of Baca, his undersheriff and numerous deputies and command staff on charges that included conspiracy, bribery and excessive use of force.
McDonnell fell short, in part because the department’s problems were too deep to expunge in a single term. He lost reelection to Villanueva, who positioned himself as someone who would drive harder to achieve further-reaching reforms than the incumbent. And he won, largely with the naive support of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, immigration advocates who paid too much attention to his rhetoric and too little to his record, and progressive activists who somehow believed he intended to offer a new level of accountability to the families of people killed or mistreated by deputies.
But that was never his intention. Once elected, Villanueva moved immediately to reverse the landmark reforms that McDonnell had begun to put in place by returning to duty deputies who previously had been fired for good cause, ending discipline proceedings for dozens of others, reversing new performance standards and undermining jailhouse conduct standards that were adopted in the wake of gratuitous inmate beatings and other unconstitutional acts. His goal was for the Sheriff’s Department to better serve sheriff’s deputies, not Los Angeles County residents who must live with the crime he fails to curb, and pay the bills for the deputy misconduct he continues to permit.
His higher-profile antics — such as sending deputies into Venice, outside his service area, at the same time he complains (falsely) about being underfunded — are too numerous to catalog here, and although they are alarming and will end up costing taxpayers, they are almost beside the point in comparison to the outrageous reversals of needed reforms.
Los Angeles County is in need of a law enforcement grown-up to get the Sheriff’s Department back on track. It needs a thoughtful, sober leader. It needs Luna.
Read more endorsements at: latimes.com/endorsements.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.