When referring to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), the modifier “scandal-plagued” is redundant; after so many scandals over so long a period, the modifier is now folded into the noun. Our current sheriff, Alex Villanueva, a noxious combination of feckless and mean, can’t get out of his own way. Former Sheriff Lee Baca and his Undersheriff Paul Tanaka are both taking federally funded vacays: Baca, guilty of obstructing justice and lying to the feds, is gracing the Federal Correctional Institution La Tuna in scenic Anthony, Texas (Gateway to El Paso!); Tanaka—also obstructing justice—is assigned a bunk at a federal sleep-away camp in Colorado. From that same scandal, seven other former sheriff’s lieutenants, sergeants and deputies convicted of conspiracy and obstruction are serving from 18 to 41 months. (Baca has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I assume it’s a ruse, but if it’s not, it raises a question: What does society gain by imprisoning a man who doesn’t understand he’s imprisoned?)
Abuse of authority by sheriffs is neither new nor limited to LA County; high-handed sheriffs imposing idiosyncratic notions of justice have long existed. The most famous recent practitioner of sheriff abuse is Joe Arpaio, ex-sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County (Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, Tempe, etc.). The outrageous Arpaio, once-seemingly untouchable, was finally brought down when convicted of criminal contempt of court. (He was then pardoned by Donald Trump.) Arpaio is best known for making detainees in the jails he oversaw wear pink underwear, but during his 24-year tenure he and his deputies did much worse, and no one could stop it. During that span Arpaio was repeatedly sued by individuals and various agencies while being repeatedly reelected by a septic coalition of right-leaning Hispanics and the rednecks who despise them.
Abusive sheriffs abuse authority because they can. Checks and balances must exist externally—the fossil record of humans who can internally check and balance is spotty—and on county sheriffs there are virtually none. Because they are directly-elected law-enforcement officers, sheriffs feel they are accountable only to voters, and then only at the end of their terms of office. Day-to-day, sheriffs are unchecked, and increasingly, unbalanced. (Jim McDonnell, who was sheriff between Baca and Villanueva, was an exception; interestingly, McDonnell was the Chief of Police of Long Beach, the same as was Robert Luna, who is vying to replace Alex Villanueva and who has a slight lead in the polls.)
Given the lack of external checks and balances on a sheriff’s authority and behavior, an out-of-control sheriff can make life miserable for whomever he (it’s almost always a he) chooses, whether private citizens, government employees, or elected officials, whom he feels have crossed him. When a sheriff, say a Baca or Villanueva, has few internal checks and balances, his petty tyranny is cage-free. Yes, the feds can take down a contemptuous sheriff, but that effort takes years during which out-of-control deputies continue to beat the crap out of people in the streets they patrol and the jails they manage.
Villanueva has repeatedly abused his authority pettily, opening criminal investigations into perceived enemies and denying access, in the name of transparency—Can you hear him chortling?—to investigators and the press. It was this sense of haughty impunity that propelled Baca et al to their ultimate downfalls, although it took the feds five years and cost who knows how much in time, money, and resources. If a sheriff refuses to play well with others, no one can make him.
LASD is the fourth largest municipal police agency in the country, yet it operates as a virtual fiefdom. (This is not surprising because the structure of nearly all American sheriffs’ departments is rooted in feudal England.) All LASD employees—around 19,000 total, nearly 10,000 sworn deputies—are appointed by, serve at the pleasure of, and are answerable to the sheriff. Cliques and alliances will inevitably form in any large agency, but a large, patronage-based, paramilitary police agency is particularly prone to forming toxic, abusive, gang-style cliques and clans
Abuse of authority starts at the top and trickles down. It might be temporarily softened by a change in the LASD’s capo, but abuse will always fester at LASD because the structure itself generates and encourages it. That will be solved only by severely curtailing the sheriff’s main power base: municipal policing.
On the ballot this November is a useful tool for removing a recalcitrant and abusive sheriff (Measure A/Yes). Its passage may rein in some of the sheriff’s more outrageous abuses, but the only meaningful long-term solution is for the Board of Supervisors to create and field an LA County municipal police force. The advantages of starting such a force from scratch are many: the creation of a model police agency with a scope of duties similar to the LASD’s but with an appointed, accountable police chief; a civilian review board with enforcement powers; and a police commission with oversight on the formulation of police department “policies.” (“Policies” are those mysteriously surfacing rules that seem to manifest whenever there is an egregious incidence of police over-reaction. They are trotted out when needed to provide a shield for police abuse: Although the decedent had no weapon and was shot in the back 16 times while surrendering, the involved officers will face no discipline because the shooting was within policy. Sorry, what? Where, exactly, does this “policy” spring from? And if a “policy” allows police to kill unarmed people with impunity, might one suggest it needs a revisit?)
Other than one-time start-up expenses, money would not be an issue: A county police force is exactly what LASD now provides, so it would cost taxpayers no more than we already pay. The toxic influence of the deputy’s union can be ameliorated by giving hiring preference to current deputies (providing of course that they pass psych evaluations, have clean, i.e. non-abusive, records, and are willing to work within new policies). A majority of current deputies would privately welcome a transfer to a rational, non-patronage-based work environment in which they could do their jobs well while no longer having to be part of an occupying infantry.
Additionally, the county could choose to seek whatever changes were necessary at the state level for a county police force to take over running the jails and providing any other law-enforcement functions that LASD currently provides, including security for county buildings and bailiffs for the courts. An LA County municipal police force would leave intact existing police agencies like the LAPD but could, as LASD now does, contract with and provide police services to LA County’s smaller cities that do not want to field their own police forces. Precedents exist: San Francisco is a joint City/County government policed by a municipal force with an elected sheriff overseeing a department with limited duties. Alaska has no sheriffs, and neither Hawaii nor Rhode Island elects sheriffs. (In fact, the elected sheriff is vestigial and ought to be excised entirely.)
Fielding an LA County-run police agency would alter only who manages a county police force that already exists, substituting a professional, modern, accountable, county-wide law enforcement agency subject to meaningful civilian oversight for a corrupt, abusive, gang-ridden, county-wide law enforcement agency run on pure patronage by an unaccountable and abusive sheriff.
Begin as you would continue: The Sheriff of Nottingham
The Sheriff of Nottingham, the archenemy of Robin Hood, is a figure taken from olde English history: In merrie olde England, the “High Sheriff” was appointed by, and accountable to, the monarch. This structure came over on the Mayflower: Counties here are roughly equivalent to English shires; “reeve” was a chief and “shire-reeve”—the chief of the shire—over time became “sheriff.”
From the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire to the Constitutional Sheriffs of Nuttingham…
In our age of extreme wackiness, this inherited olde structure has recently metastasized into the “Constitutional Sheriffs” or “County Supremacy” movement. (This is a real thing.) Traumatized, radicalized, and energized by the 1993 federal fiasco at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas—plus being untethered from reality—some sheriffs formed an association whose members assert that county sheriffs (i.e. them) are the highest "legitimate" law enforcement authorities in the United States and that they have “constitutional authority” that overrides federal law. No one is sure why they call themselves “Constitutional Sheriffs” since “sheriff” is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution; nevertheless, they predicate their theory on the notion that, just as olde High Sheriffs were appointed by and answerable to the monarch, they, because they are appointed (i.e., elected) by the monarch (i.e., the people), are answerable only to voters.
Alex Villanueva has given no public indication that he considers himself a Constitutional Sheriff, but, as did Baca, Villanueva behaves like a Constitutional Sheriff, acting with impunity while taking the position that he answers only to voters. Think of Villanueva as a Constitutional Sheriff lite.
Our Founders dwelt within a largely agrarian population that was a small fraction—2,500,000; a rounding error—of today’s 333,000,000. They assumed future voters who, as they themselves did, would know the deeds, families, reputations—the characters—of candidates seeking their votes. Being prescient but not omniscient, they could not foresee a time when a vast majority of voters would be unable to get within three degrees of separation of office-seekers, nor could they imagine so many voters being of lesser discernment (i.e., not white males). [Do not believe, even for a moment, that the Supreme Court’s current majority of Constitutional Originalists hasn’t considered the implications of that notion.]
Their lived experiences being what they were, the Founders could not foresee a time when it would be impossible for voters to, in any practical sense, know a candidate. Nor could they foresee a time when the only practical way for voters and candidates to get acquainted would be via hyper-developed and specialized forms of mass media. Nor a time when mass media manipulators could craft what are essentially candidate avatars, could concoct credible virtual characters with whom voters could connect as though he/she/they were real, could compose convincing counterfeits of actual, living humans who were wholly disconnected from any actual, living human.
Nor could they conceive of voters who would cooperate in their own manipulation by spending time on their telephones (nor could they have conceived of the telephone) responding to surveys that would provide their manipulators with raw materials from which those manipulators would then carefully craft counterfeit characters for candidates whose purported positions they could then feed back to those same voters to convince them that those same carefully crafted virtual candidates’ avatars were deserving of their votes.
But smack-dab in the middle of that feedback loop is where we find ourselves.
Take, for example, the candidate avatar of Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democratic presidential wannabe who just noisily left the Democratic Party, in the process coming out as a raging, rabid, right-wing kook: “I can no longer remain in today’s Democratic Party. It’s now under the complete control of an elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness, who divide us by racializing every issue and stoking anti-white racism, who actively work to undermine our God-given freedoms enshrined in our Constitution.”
Or, locally, Rick Caruso, whose mayoral-candidate avatar is a billionaire who, we are informed, is both a high-end-shopping-mall developer and a champion of the homeless; a pro-choice, anti-abortion, regular guy billionaire everyman, a Trump-like. get-things-done, regular guy billionaire, except, unlike Trump, with a functioning brain and bleeding heart; a Latin white guy; a life-long, committed Republican Independent Democrat; a candidate who—because he’s a billionaire—can afford not to care about money; a candidate who—because he’s a billionaire—can afford to be all things to all people; a candidate who—because he’s a billionaire—can afford to hire the very best people to craft a virtual candidate avatar who passes as a living, breathing, human, regular guy. (C’mon. Is it his fault he’s a billionaire?)
Or Nury Martinez, whose candidate avatar successfully disguised an angry, homophobic racist. Or Alex Villanueva, whose candidate avatar pledged to be progressive.
(I know of animals having been put up as candidates, but has anyone—say The Onion or QAnon—suggested that a Capricorn One-style candidate, someone who doesn’t actually exist, has been put up for office? This very real possibility argues in favor of a parliamentary system: Members of a parliamentary majority, when selecting a party leader—who then becomes Prime Minister—can reasonably be assumed to know that such a person actually exists.)
This is a scenario Jonathan Swift would have tossed out as too outlandish, and it’s one the Founders could not foresee: Voting has become a crap shoot. Who knows who a candidate really is? Sometimes we get lucky, and the actual person we elect bears a resemblance to the candidate for whom we voted. But in too many recent elections we have been offered candidate avatars who present as not being raging, homophobic, anti-Semitic racists but who then turn out to be all those things.
Much too often current candidate avatars turn out to have no connection to the actual human for whom they substitute, and this has had serious consequences. It has disappointed so many people that we have reached a curdling point: Many of us have begun to vote only along party lines because then we have some assurance that we know something about how a candidate might vote.
The next step in democracy’s devolution, already taken by the vast bulk of Republicans, is to no longer care who candidates actually are so long as, once elected, they rigidly hew to their party’s line: cut taxes, build walls, and ban abortions. (And if they don’t, they’re booted out.) Herschel “pay for an abortion” Walker? We don’t care what he does, only how he votes. It’s also why attacks on the press resonate with Republican voters who have already gone over this precipice: Having been bull-shat for so long by so many media sources, they’ve concluded that every source is bull-shitting them, so they might just as well listen to sources that feed them bull-shit they like.
…to our own high (handed) Sheriff of Nuttingham
I am occasionally guilty of short-shifting votes. Sometimes I have no clue about who is the better of two candidates, so if one is male and the other female, I’ll vote female. If one is White and the other Black, I’ll vote Black. Or Hispanic-surnamed. Or handicapped; it’s not rational, but it strikes me as reasonable, my personal affirmative action program. (And I know I’m not alone.) It is, in fact a ludicrous declension, and right-wingers rightfully ridicule it, notwithstanding they have for millennia done exactly the same, only in reverse: voted for White males over everyone else.
As a result of my short-shifting, though, Alex Villanueva’s bullying of decent people—Alene Tchekmedyian, Max Huntsman, Sheila Kuehl, Patti Giggans (note that three out of those four are women)—falls in some measure on me. In 2018, not knowing much about either candidate, I voted for Villanueva (Hispanic) instead of McDonnell (White). So I’m partially responsible for the scandals. Sometimes short-shifting a vote doesn’t matter too much. This time it mattered a great deal.
If you’re reading this, you might find the LA Progressive’s voter guide useful.