LA County Sheriff candidates fight for votes

LA County Sheriff Helicopter. Photo by John Murphy

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell faces a rare runoff for reelection, going up against retired sheriff’s Lt. Alex Villanueva. Villanueva, who retired from his post last February, is endorsed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. He paints McDonnell as a career bureaucrat, while the incumbent Sheriff points to his opponent’s lack of experience.

Warren Olney sat down with both candidates, individually.

Listen to Warren’s interview with McDonnell:

Highlights from the interview:

WHY DIDN’T VOTERS JUST HAND HIM ANOTHER 4 YEARS?

McDonnell: People don’t understand what we’ve been able to accomplish in four years. I think we’ve come so far, when you look at the condition of the sheriff’s department four years ago, having just come through the most significant scandal in the history of the organization. Where the Undersheriff and the Sheriff were both convicted of federal crimes. You look at what was going on in the jails: the accounts of brutality, corruption, or worse. It’s hard to understand unless you’re in there just how far we’ve come in this time.

SHOULD MENTALLY ILL OFFENDERS BE IN JAIL

No, I agree with the people who say that they should not be in jail. That is not a therapeutic environment. I believe that our people are as well trained as they can be given the background and experience they bring to the equation. We have, by default, the largest mental health institution in America, if not the world, and we shouldn’t be one at all.

ON ONLY ONE PUBLIC DEBATE WITH LT. VILLANUEVA

That was enough for me to see that he didn’t have any substance he wanted to talk about, he was just going to attack me and attack the department with a lot of untruths. So he had his opportunity to be able to show what he had to offer. He didn’t show much in the way of anything in my mind… [The voters] have an opportunity to hear him. He’s out there every night, I’m out there every night. It’s just in a different forum.

ON THE DEPARTMENT’S MORALE D+ RATING

It has been a difficult time to be in the profession, but a difficult time to recruit new people into the profession as well. Morale is an issue nationwide.

We put in place an inspector general, audits, an accountability bureau, a civilian oversight commission, constitutional policing advisors, closed-circuit TV cameras throughout the jail environment, and at the same time, we’ve been able to reduce crime and drive significant use of force in the jails down to almost nothing.

ON VILLANUEVA’S CLAIM THAT CORRUPTION STILL PREVAILS

Well, we’ve had tremendous change in our command staff in the four years that I’ve been there. Undersheriff and Assistant Sheriff level completely turned over 100 percent, Chief Level 90 percent, Commander 70 percent, Captains 80 percent, and Division Directors 50 percent. So for [Villanueva] to say that there’s been no change at the top? There’s been unprecedented change.

WOULD HE HELP TRUMP UNDERMINE CALIFORNIA’S SANCTUARY LAW

We’re following the law. The Senate Bill 54 was drafted and it would have precluded us working with any federal agency who had any kind of responsibilities or work on immigration issues. That would have shut us down… So we worked with the governor, with his staff, to be able to shape that into something that was workable. Ultimately what the governor signed is what we were doing here in Los Angeles County. And that was allowing ICE access to the jails only for those that are convicted, and only for those that are convicted of crimes as laid out by the Trust Act, which later became the law that he signed.

ARE YOU NOW IN FAVOR OF THE SANCTUARY LAW?

I weigh in on bills before they become law. Once they’re the law, I’m a law enforcement officer and we follow the law.

WHY IS THE DOMESTIC HIGHWAY ENFORCEMENT FACING ALLEGATIONS OF RACIAL PROFILING?

I saw the article and was troubled when I first read it as well, so we dug into it a little bit and we are working with the inspector general to find out what’s going on there. But when we looked at the statistics that were used as a basis of comparison… I think that the numbers don’t tell the story…But certainly, working with the inspector general, I’m hopeful that if we’re doing something that we shouldn’t be doing, or doing in a way we shouldn’t be doing, that we will fix that.

The highway enforcement team does tremendous work. They take a lot of drugs off the street… and they rescued, over the period of time, six human trafficking victims as well.

Interview with Alex Villanueva

McConnell’s challenger, retired Sheriff’s Lt. Alex Villanueva, also sat down with Warren Olney, where he railed against his opponent.


Highlights from the interview:

WHY HE WOULD MAKE A BETTER SHERIFF THAN THE INCUMBENT

Villanueva: Simple reason: I have 32 years with the sheriff’s department, I just retired in February, I have the institutional knowledge, I have the credibility as a reformer—I spoke out against corruption in the Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka years—and I’ve been an advocate and a reformer my entire career with the sheriff’s department. At this time in our history, we need someone who actually knows how to lead the department. We don’t need a career bureaucrat.

WHAT KIND OF REFORMS HAVE YOU BEEN RESPONSIBLE FOR?

Actually, early on, in 1988, I initiated a drive to ban smoking in the county jails, and I faced a lot of headwind, but the idea was the right thing at the right time, and ultimately it was successful. It was approved by the sheriff, by the deputy’s union, signed into law, and I actually wrote the policy for the entire division.

THE HEAD OF THE PROFESSIONAL PEACE OFFICERS ASSOCIATION SAID THAT IF YOU WERE SHERIFF IT WOULD BE AS IF A DRIVE THRU TELLER AT A FAST FOOD RESTAURANT WERE BEING ASKED TO BE CEO OF THE COMPANY. WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THAT?

That was an insult to every single Lieutenant, and there’s about 400 on the department. Everything about the rank Lieutenant is purely administrative in nature. The issue is this is about leadership. It’s not about comparing who has more experience managing bureaucracies, because what we got was a manager under McDonnell and the results speak for themselves. We’re a shrinking department, he cannot recruit people because people no longer trust him, everyone’s walking on eggshells, morale is at rock bottom, crime is going upwards… That’s what a career bureaucrat gives you.

ON HIS ENDORSEMENT FROM THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY AND WHETHER THIS SHOULD BE A POLITICAL OFFICE

Now it has to be. To pretend that somehow an office of this significance has no political bearing is ludicrous. When you look at the Trump administration when they weaponized immigration enforcement and he’s using that as a tool for reelection, guess what? He’s actually enlisting the support of chiefs of police and sheriffs across the nation to support his agenda. And that brings right dead center into Los Angeles County, and ICE, and the issue of SB 54, which was a California Values Act, and McDonnell fought tooth and nail against it.

ARE YOU IN FACT ALLIED WITH THE DEMOCRATS THAT WANT TO GET RID OF ICE ALTOGETHER?

No, I’m not. ICE has a function and we have to examine how well they’re doing their job and recognize that now it’s all become politicized.

HOW DO YOU REPRESENT THE DIVERSITY OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY BETTER THAN SHERIFF MCDONNELL?

I’ve lived here my entire adult life, since 1983. I was born in Chicago, raised in New York, and I spent my formative years in Puerto Rico in a different culture, so I speak Spanish fluently. So I actually had the reverse experience, I went from English only to Spanish only. So coming here to California, I can actually empathize with and understand the plight of people that come to a foreign land with a different language, different culture… There’s a lot of hardships, there’s a lot of hurdles you have to overcome. So that is part of that, being able to represent, is having a diversity of perspectives, which [McDonnell] lacks.

HOW COULD HE DO A BETTER JOB THAN MCDONNELL AT REMOVING CORRUPT OFFICIALS?

The top 17 positions of the department… they don’t have civil service protection… It’s a straight political patronage system. The good ol’ boy network. It has nothing to do with competency, has nothing to do with qualifications, merit. Everything is driven by cronyism, and I’m gonna end that cronyism system and actually put into place a system that we’re rewarding public service.

The very same people that Paul Tanaka used to create the pay to play scandal are McDonnell’s command staff. The very same people. Nothing has changed.