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Saturday morning the stage was set for a toe-to-toe battle between two men running to be the next Los Angeles County Sheriff, arguably the most powerful political position in Los Angeles.

Alex Villanueva

Organized by Esther Lim, the ACLU Jails Project Director, and supported by an array of activist organizations, with award-winning KPCC radio newsman Frank Stoltze on hand to moderate, the forum at Ward AME Church in South LA promised to be, could have been, should have been a real mano-a-mano, gloves-off discussion between current one-term incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell and retired Sheriff's Lieutenant Alex Villanueva, who managed to force this runoff with a paltry $27,000 campaign war chest in the June primary.

The forum at Ward AME Church in South LA promised to be, could have been, should have been a real mano-a-mano, gloves-off discussion between current one-term incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell and retired Sheriff's Lieutenant Alex Villanueva.

But then, maybe 10 days ago, McDonnell's folks sent a note rescinding the Sheriff's promised appearance, saying the Sheriff did not want to attend an event where the other candidate was just going to “attack, attack, attack,” and that “the other candidate” made McDonnell uncomfortable.

So much for meeting the community where it is.

Welcoming the crowd to his Ward AME sanctuary, Rev. John Cager said that he had recently had conversations with two high-level religious and community leaders in Los Angeles, who had asked where he would be this Saturday morning. When Cager mentioned the debate, they said, "What, there's a Sheriff's election?"

And that's the real problem here.

In a county with 10 million inhabitants, the chance to interact with the person who leads a 9,000-member Los Angeles Sheriff's Department—to discuss pressing issues about the department's continued undercurrent of corruption, its fraught interaction with ICE around immigration issues, the ongoing debate about the hugely expensive jail construction plans, the persistent profiling and violence against black and brown communities—are few and very far in between.

Nevertheless, Stoltze, Villanueva and the sharply interested audience soldiered on.

On immigration, Villanueva would draw a bright line separating the department from ICE. "Local law enforcement has no business being involved with deportation," he said.

He faulted McDonnell for missing a ceremony with State Senator Pro Tem Kevin de León and Governor Jerry Brown honoring SB 54, the California Sanctuary State Bill that outlines non-cooperation policies between California law enforcement agencies and federal immigration agents. Instead, McDonnell attended a Sacramento meeting with Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Session, according to Villanueva.

Having ICE officials in the jail sends a chill through immigrant inmates, which they transmit to LA's large immigrant communities, which might naturally be less cooperative with law enforcement agencies in reporting crimes in their neighborhoods, indicated Villanueva.

Instead, Villanueva would have Sheriff deputies, who operate the County's jails, deal with violent immigrant inmates themselves, transporting violent offenders to ICE facilities rather than having ICE agents in the jails.

"McDonnell should have been shoulder-to-shoulder with the Governor and State Attorney General Xavier Becerra in support of SB54," said Villanueva, son of a Polish immigrant mother and a Puerto Rican father.

Quizzed closely on that point by Stoltze, Villanueva said a department under his command would work closely with other federal task forces—such as ones dealing with human trafficking and cybercrime.

On the County's jail expansion plans, Villanueva wants to hit the pause button.

"I don't want to double down on stupid and build new jails until we know what we need," he said.

He cited the recent state bail reform bill, which will shrink the 17,000 jail population, and other efforts to find alternatives to incarceration.

In particular, he shared the concern with using the jail system to house the many inmates with mental health issues.

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"The worst place and the most expensive place to provide mental health care is a jail," he said, citing a trend begun under Gov. Ronald Reagan to empty out the state's mental hospitals.

Villanueva talked of the need for all parties to come together—from the Sheriff's Department to community organizations to community members—to find a better way to provide community-based mental health services outside the jailhouse.

alex villanueva

Retired Sheriff's Lt. Alex Villanueva, right, at a sheriff's election forum on Saturday moderated by KPCC reporter Frank Stoltze. Villanueva's opponent, Sheriff Jim McDonnell, failed to show up. (Maya Lau / Los Angeles Times)

Perhaps the strongest criticism of Villanueva's campaign is his lack of high-level leadership experience. His opponent rose to Deputy Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department before becoming Long Beach's Police Chief and then winning election to L.A.’s Sheriff four years ago.

Villanueva countered that his long experience on patrol for the Sheriff's Department gives him greater understanding of how the department needs to change.

"Currently, the organization places no value on serving on patrol. They actually refer to it as being ‘stuck in patrol,’” said Villanueva. “Today, riding the desk is the way to be promoted and collect stars.”

Villanueva’s 17 years in the community convinced him that law enforcement should not be an occupying force but rather members of the community to be effective.

Villanueva would require deputies at variously levels in their careers to serve in the field for extended periods, to better know the communities before they are considered for promotion.

"As Sheriff, I would bring community service back to the LASD," he said. "Rather than rate deputies on how many arrests they've made, I would rate them on how much safer they make their community. That's how you measure a deputy's value in serving the community."

"In this business, you can either be in law enforcement, or you can be a peace officer," said Villanueva, a 32-year department veteran. "My goal is always to be a peace officer."

High on Villanueva's list for reforming the department would be in officer recruitment for a department that is currently short 1,000 officers.

Villanueva emphasized that a department under his command would look like the communities it serves.

"I want kids from the community to serve their communities, whether that's Compton or East LA or Malibu,” he said. “I’m not interested in recruiting from Florida or Kansas or Texas.”

It is entirely possible that Sheriff McDonnell would have pungent responses to questions from Stoltze and a well-informed audience as well, but the chair with his picture on it between Stoltze and Villanueva had little to say.

The same coalition of activist groups—ACLU SoCal, LA Progressive, Justice Not Jails, LA Regional Reentry Partnership, Dignity & Power Now, CLUE, and Youth Justice Coalition—has two more Sheriff debates planned: October 6th, 10 a.m., Antelope Valley, and October 13th, 7 p.m., East LA College.

Villanueva has committed to attending. The chair with McDonnell's picture taped to it will be making the trip. Who knows, maybe the Sheriff himself will have a change of heart and show up.


[dc]“T[/dc]ransparency starts with showing up for debates” Villanueva said when asked about the need to increase transparency in the department.

Change won’t happen overnight,” Villanueva concluded. “But it starts November 6th.”

Dick Price
Editor, LA Progressive