Los Angeles voters send a message to scofflaw sheriffs

Los Angeles County voters just sent a powerful and threatening message to sheriffs across California: Enforce the laws, even the ones you don’t like, or you risk not staying in office much longer.

They did it in two emphatic ways: first, they beat the state’s chief sheriff, Alex Villanueva, by over 18 percentage points, over 320,000 votes. Then, a short distance from their ballots, they voted by an overwhelming 69% to allow future sheriffs to be fired if 80% of their county supervisors voted to oust them.

This local proposal, known as Measure A, specified that sheriffs could only be fired if they broke the laws, grossly neglected their duties, embezzled funds, falsified documents or obstructed an investigation. Villanueva has been unofficially charged with almost all of these.

Villanueva has perhaps been California’s most egregious lawmaker, with his well-publicized refusals to enforce COVID-19 quarantines and masking, trying to obstruct the work of the county’s oversight commission. , tolerating gang deputies and more, but he was far from the only sheriff exposed during the height of the pandemic.

The refusal of sheriffs and police chiefs to enforce state law was most common during the height of Covid infections, which have so far killed more than 93,000 Californians. By the end of 2020, before Covid vaccines began to reduce cases and hospitalizations, at least two dozen law enforcement agencies were refusing to observe or enforce stay-at-home orders. emergency, crowd size and masking of state and local public health workers.

Of the five counties with the highest seven-day average number of Covid cases in the week leading up to Christmas 2020, only one had taken strict enforcement measures to protect its population.

Wherever these measures have been applied, they have proven effective. Statistics show that if this state had continued the laissez-faire, stay-open approach used in Florida and some other states, more than 40,000 more Californians would have died today.

But the scofflaw sheriffs didn’t care. Villanueva was not pressured to act, nor were sheriffs in neighboring Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, among others ranging as far north as Del Norte County on the Oregon border.

But nothing happened to Villanueva or the other sheriffs who refused until it was time for Villanueva to seek re-election this fall. It was then that his political house collapsed.

No doubt former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, Villanueva’s successor, will be much more circumspect, making sure to enforce even unpopular or inconvenient laws, like anti-Covid tactics. But we don’t know what could happen elsewhere. For example, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco won re-election in the June 7 primary, so he still has four years in office.

But Measure A provides an example to show elected supervisors in other counties, who have never had much authority over sheriffs, that they too can rein in recalcitrant law enforcement kingpins. This applies to reluctant law enforcement in counties from Sacramento to Imperial near the Mexican border.

Villanueva opposed Measure A as “an illegal motion that would allow corrupt supervisors to intimidate sheriffs from carrying out their official duties of investigating crimes.” Of course, right after the November vote, he faced his own investigation, with the local district attorney now looking into allegations that he tried to dupe his deputies for campaign donations once he realized that his re-election was in doubt.

In any case, the vast majority of Los Angeles County voters ignored Villanueva’s protests, and he will soon be gone. It remains to be seen whether he faces bribery charges for allegedly soliciting campaign money from MPs, with the implicit threat of punishment if they fail to donate.

But county supervisors who voted 4-1 to put Measure A on the ballot said they believed he was guilty of at least three of the shortcomings listed in the proposal as grounds for dismissal.

If the loss of Villanueva and the easy passage of Measure A doesn’t tell other sheriffs to enforce even laws they don’t like, it’s hard to see what could.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]