LOS ANGELES- Los Angeles County supervisors were briefed Tuesday on four legal options for removing Sheriff Alex Villanueva from his elected post, but it was not clear if the board is ready to take action.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and former Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas first called on county attorneys in October to spell out their options for playing hardball with the sheriff.
Then last week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced he was launching an investigation into whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. It seems that a majority of the board is now willing to wait and see how that investigation — which will certainly take many months, if not years — plays out. Villanueva will be up for reelection in 2022.
County Counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva laid out the board’s alternatives, including an amendment to the county charter, a recall, an accusation by a civil grand jury of willful or corrupt misconduct followed by a jury trial, or an action by the state’s attorney general challenging the sheriff’s right to hold his post.
Supervisor Hilda Solis, the board’s current chair, noted that to date, the board has sued the sheriff, held back funding and granted subpoena power to watchdog dog agencies to strengthen oversight.
“I welcome this investigation as a continuation of the board’s continued effort to hold the department accountable for its actions and inactions against the residents of L.A. County,” Solis said, referring to the AG’s announcement.
Solis also highlighted that voters have the power to remove the sheriff when he comes up for reelection, a point that Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger have stressed in previous meetings. Barger reiterated that position Tuesday.
“I remove opposed to taking action to unilaterally remove the sheriff or changing policies to instead have that position be appointed,” Barger said. “It’s not our jurisdiction to take power away from the people.”
Barring a community-led recall vote, Barger said she would leave it up to the AG to take swift action if the investigation warrants. Supervisor Holly Mitchell, the newest member of the board, said it was painful to listen to the particulars of Becerra’s announcement and underscored what she characterized as a loss of trust in the sheriff.
“Complaints from the community about the excessive use of force and deputy-involved gangs, which have plagued the department for decades, have increased in the wake of fatal shootings of several well-known names here in L.A. County,” Mitchell said.
For his part, the sheriff has said he also welcomes Becerra’s involvement.
“Our department may finally have an impartial, objective assessment of our operations, and recommendations on any areas we can improve our service to the community,” he said in a statement last week, promising to grant the AG’s office immediate access to all information.
Given three minutes to speak earlier in the board meeting, Villanueva pointed to what he called an epidemic of gun violence and a 36% increase in homicides in 2020 and a 162% jump in the first three weeks of the new year.
“That’s almost one life lost every day to violence in our communities,” Villanueva said. “And the challenges faced in my department are unheard of in past administrations.”
He said he’s working on new investigative protocols for critical incidents.
“The well-funded and coordinated effort to de-legitimize the entire profession of law enforcement only adds to fuel to the fire of rising violence seen in our communities,” the sheriff said. “In spite of all the worn-out accusations of being against transparency and accountability, I can say that being sheriff is all about doing both, while preserving the rights of all.”
He thanked the supervisors who met with him over the past few months and Mitchell in particular for meeting with him, something he said her predecessor, Ridley-Thomas, had been unwilling to do. Mitchell later said no one should assume that her perspective on the sheriff’s performance was changed by a single meeting and added that it is imperative that the department cooperate with the Civilian Oversight Commission and the Office of Inspector General. However, she also seemed content to let the AG’s investigation proceed before reconsidering options.
“I will be monitoring it closely, and hopefully, we will then have an opportunity to revisit our options for ensuring a stronger, more permanent sense of accountability once the attorney general’s investigation is completed,” Mitchell said.
Even before Becerra’s announcement, the sheriff had been under legal pressure to provide more information to county agencies he has previously dismissed as tools of the board.
After being threatened with a contempt order, he appeared before the COC last week to update the group on COVID-19 in the jails. Despite the COC’s earlier call for Villanueva to resign and the sheriff’s acrimonious comments about the commission, that discussion was cordial.
Kuehl said she would continue to look closely at the possibilities. Two options would likely need to meet a standard of criminal action or at least legal malfeasance, while the other two would require voter approval and significant community or legislative support to even get the appropriate ballot measures in place.
“Most of (the options) look like a heavy lift to me, but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be possible,” Kuehl said.
Given her colleagues’ comments, it’s not clear that Kuehl could garner sufficient support for additional action.
“It is not possible to bring a motion right away today,” she said.
The board voted to receive the county counsel’s report. No written record of the report was provided as part of the agenda.