Los Angeles holds rare runoff for sheriff in a department rocked by scandals

Daniel Nichanian

Numerous scandals have hit the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department this year. In September, The Appeal reported about mounting allegations of abuse by the department’s deputies. In early October, the Los Angeles Times published an investigation into racial profiling that found that 69 percent of drivers stopped by sheriff’s deputies from 2012 through 2017 were Latinx.

Jim McDonnell, the incumbent sheriff, is now seeking a second term against challenger Alex Villanueva. (The election is nonpartisan, though McDonnell is an independent and a former Republican and Villanueva is a Democrat. Mayor Eric Garcetti has endorsed McDonnell.)

Immigration enforcement looms large. McDonnell opposed Senate Bill 54, the “sanctuary” law that limits contact between local law enforcement and federal authorities, before it passed; he argued that it would threaten public safety. He provides ICE an office in a jail, and Villanueva has blamed him for the rising number of people transferred to federal authorities. “[McDonnell] increased deportations in spite of SB54,” he said. Villanueva supports SB 54 and says that he would impose further distance from federal authorities. “I’m going to create a very bright line between department’s actions and ICE, and I’ll actually physically kick ICE out of the county jails,” he said.

“When you have access to the jails like ICE, it makes your job much easier,” says Diana Colin, the program director of CHIRLA Action Fund, an immigrants’ advocacy group that has endorsed Villanueva. Barring ICE from jails would limit the ways in which someone can end up on the agency’s radar, she told me.

But Comlin also said that the next sheriff should go further in ending all “contact, transfers, and coordination” involving ICE. In illustrating the spatial separation he calls for, Villanueva says that transfers into ICE custody would occur—just not at the jail. “We’re going to do the transfers outside of the view of other inmates, in the courtyard of our secure bus terminal,” he has said.

Ace Katano, a criminal defense attorney and member of Ground Game Los Angeles, endorsed Villanueva in a recent blog post but also questioned just how much this position represents a break with ICE. “To really get the sheriff’s department out of the business of immigration doesn’t just involve setting policies at the jail, it also involves setting policies regarding who is put in detention in the first place,” Katano told me. “The criminal justice system is the first point of contact for a lot of people going into deportation proceedings,” so “how do you avoid putting people into custody?”

Villanueva has also proposed pausing the county’s plan to replace the Men’s Central Jail. “It’s just another jail,” he said. “It’s putting lipstick on a pig.” According to the Los Angeles Daily News, he proposes building alternatives like “decentralized mental health facilities.”

McDonnell and Villanueva have both indicated that they oppose giving a civilian oversight commission subpoena power, which would help the group conduct independent investigations.

Update (Nov. 29, 2018):  After weeks of suspenseful counting, Alex Villanueva has ousted Sheriff Jim McDonnell and will now run the largest sheriff’s department in the country. Villanueva is planning to roll back policing reforms implemented in recent years, the Los Angeles Times reports. He says that will eliminate the department’s constitutional policing advisers, officials who are involved with oversight of deputy misconduct. The union of deputy sheriffs (ALADS), which spent $1.3 million to help elect Villanueva, opposes these advisers. Villanueva has also denounced the practice of disclosing the “Brady list,” a list of deputies with a history of misconduct allegations (ALADS opposed disclosing this list). He has also proposed arming deputies with metal flashlights in jail.