Los Angeles needs California’s help holding Sheriff Villanueva accountable

By Raphael Sonenshein, Special to CalMatters

When Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced a criminal investigation of the department’s inspector general, it may have been the most alarming in a series of controversial steps since his election in November 2018, but it’s not his only one.  

Sheriff Villanueva has upended the disciplinary process for sheriff’s deputies, defended sheriff cliques, and has, without compelling evidence, accused the county’s elected and appointed officials of misconduct.

Villanueva told the Los Angeles Times: “I am actually assuming the proper role of the sheriff, which is to run the Sheriff’s Department. I don’t tell the board how to do their jobs, and I don’t think they have either the legal authority or right to dictate how I, as an elected official and the sheriff, run the Sheriff’s Department. “

In 2014, Los Angeles County supervisors created the inspector general to provide independent oversight of the sheriff’s department and the county jails.  

According to reporting by Maya Lau in the Times, the inspector general had issued a report to the supervisors alleging the sheriff’s lack of cooperation in providing information.  As a result, the supervisors voted to explore granting subpoena power to the inspector general. It was not long after those actions that the sheriff announced his criminal investigation of the inspector general.

So who can hold the sheriff accountable?

Sheriffs are an anomaly in the system of checks and balances that is a hallmark of American government at federal, state, and local levels.  

In California, the elected sheriff is enshrined in the state constitution. As a result, county supervisors cannot easily oversee the sheriff in the way that mayors and councils can hold appointed police chiefs accountable. Supervisors could in theory use their budget authority to rein in the sheriff. But this is a stretch, since it might lead to cutting services. 

In any case, the sheriff’s role can make it difficult for supervisors to push harder. It’s therefore incumbent on the state government to help beleaguered local officials hold the sheriff accountable.

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva

Without help from the state, county officials and voters could be vulnerable to long legal battles.  While the L.A. County board just won a long-running court challenge to Villanueva’s rehiring of a fired deputy, other cases may go a different way, or drag on for months or even years. 

State law empowers the sheriff, but also creates other lines of supervision.

Assembly Bill 1185 by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, would authorize county governments to create an inspector general and a civilian oversight commission and vest either or both with subpoena authority. 

Having passed the Assembly, it is now in the Senate. The imprimatur of state law would help Los Angeles County supervisors to withstand lawsuits over their plans to empower the inspector general to issue subpoenas, and a 2020 ballot measure to provide the same power to the civilian oversight commission created in 2016.

But it’s not just the Legislature. 

Article V, Section 13 of the state Constitution states: “The Attorney General shall have direct supervision over every district attorney and sheriff and over such other law enforcement officers as may be designated by law, in all matters pertaining to the duties of their respective offices, and may require any of said officers to make reports concerning the investigation, detection, prosecution, and punishment of crime in their respective jurisdictions as to the Attorney General may seem advisable.”

This provision suggests that the Attorney General can provide another level of oversight to which the sheriff would be required to defer. 

We often strengthen our system of checks and balances when leaders exceed what we consider reasonable authority.  It is only when these boundaries are tested that we truly appreciate them.  

By utilizing the powers that the constitution authorizes, the state can help Los Angeles reset its accountability structure for the sheriff, not for the purpose of state control of local law enforcement but rather for a more locally accountable system. That will transform the current controversy into a case study in good government.

 —

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A.,[email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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