Getting Body Cams ASAP, Getting ICE Out of Jails—and Other Campaign Promises Made by New LA County Sheriff Villanueva

“If I’m elected, on day one, we’re going to set an entirely new course for the organization,” Alex Villanueva told WitnessLA in an interview way back in July 2017, before the primary election for Los Angeles County Sheriff began to heat up.

“It’s going to be one that is built on public service, not self-service. The decisions we make are going to be driven by facts, not by agendas. That’s what this department needs.”

So what has new Sheriff Villanueva been doing about keeping that and other campaign promises since he was sworn in on December 3.

Quite a lot, as it turns out. And, although some of his moves have been controversial, other steps—like his meeting with members of the Civilian Oversight Commission last week about pushing ahead almost immediately to get much-delayed body cams for deputies— are heartening.

Bring on the body cams

Not all of the the check list of reforms that Villanueva talked about during his campaign equally appealing to the broad range of voters who put the new sheriff into office.

But one reform that is likely to please the department’s rank and file, and their union, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) which backed him with substantial cash, while also pleasing the members of the 36 or more progressive voter clubs that endorsed Villanueva, was the guarantee to break through the perplexing barriers—both fiscal and bureaucratic—that have somehow kept the LASD from acquiring body cameras.

It didn’t seem to matter that most every other major law enforcement agency in the nation—including the Los Angeles Police Department—has managed to get the things.

Last week, however,  the new sheriff met with a cluster of representatives of the department’s Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) and told them that he wanted to move ahead quickly with the much stalled body cams, and was aiming for aiming for the first quarter of 2019—instead of the three or so years that McDonnell was predicting.

Moreover, said Villanueva, he believed he could do the program for many millions less that the original $84 million, which department sources suggested had been “inflated.”

(If you’ll remember, when we last checked in on the body cam issue in August of this year, then Sheriff McDonnell and the board of supervisors were still dithering over whether to implement an October 2017 report from the County CEO and the sheriff which priced getting the body cams for the LASD at $84 million, with the hiring of 304 people, and a jaw-dropping four-year-long phase in—even though the department had already done an extensive and very successful model program at four LASD stations—Carson, Century, Lancaster, and Temple. The program tested four brands and five models of body-cam systems, deploying a total of 96 cameras, from September 2014 to April 2015, and it was a rousing and informative success.

Yet, Sheriff Villanueva says he can break through all of the roadblocks before the first quarter is out.

Of course, getting the cameras will require the approval of the supervisors, who must allocate the necessary money. But if his budget is as lean as dollar amount he quoted to the COC representatives, we presume approval will not be too difficult a hurdle to clear.

ICE out of jails

During his campaign Villanueva told WitnessLA, and such supporters as the Chicano Latino Caucus, which bills itself as the largest Latino Democratic party organization in the nation, that he planned to keep ICE representatives out of the county’s jails.

“There’s so much inaccuracy going around about immigration policy,” Villanueva said at that time. “For instance, people don’t know that SB 54 [known officially as the Values Act] allows for the transfer of dangerous felons to ICE custody, which it does.”

But, while he will follow the law, and transfer inmates to ICE whose convictions qualify, he said, he will remove ICE agents from “all jail facilities,” he said.

On Tuesday, December 18, the sheriff appeared at the LA County Board of Supervisors meeting and reiterated his stands on immigration issues.

“We’re going to physically remove ICE from the county jails,” he told the supervisors and those in the audience.

Neither Lee Baca, nor Jim McDonnell took that step. Under McDonnell, the names and fingerprints of people booked into the county’s jails, plus lists of inmates who were coming up for release, were sent automatically to ICE.

The new LASD will do neither, according to Assistant Sheriff Robert Olmsted, and Commander Elie Morejon, the two members of Villanueva’s command staff who stayed behind after the sheriff left to fill in the details.

Morejon and Olmsted noted that since inmates’ release dates are posted publicly in the Inmate Information section of the LASD’s website, for the use of friends and family who need the information, nothing prevents ICE from finding that same information, and scooping up inmates the minute they step off county property. Consequently, Morejon said, the department was going to “re-valuate” that element of the website to see if its usefulness still outweighs potential harm it could produce for undocumented inmates.

Villanueva and company also plan to reevaluate the 150 misdemeanor charges that are presently on the list for automatic transfers to ICE, and “minimize [the list] to only the most serious misdemeanor charges.”

Constitutional policing—and Constitutional advisors

In November of this year, just before the final vote count arrived, Villanueva announced his intention of getting rid of the two Constitutional Policing Advisors, Diana Teran, and Sergio Perez, who had been hired by Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

In an interview with Frank Stoltze for LAist, the soon to be new sheriff declared the attorney/advisors “a dog and pony show,” that focused too much “on misconduct of deputies,” while ignoring misconduct by command staff, and “systemic issues” including “racial profiling.

“You had a lot of issues of deputies involved in criminal misconduct that was concealed for a long time.”

Villanueva said he planned instead to launch a “truth and reconciliation commission” that would review potential wrongful convictions and possible wrongful terminations of deputies.”

The deputies’ union expressed delight at he new sheriff’s intent to dump the civilian Constitutional advisors.  But reform advocates, like Peter Eliasberg, of the Southern California ACLU, and a long list of others, were alarmed.

Now, however, Sheriff Villanueva has reportedly retooled his position, and says he will hire Constitutional policing advisors of his own, in addition to the the truth and reconciliation commission.

Brass and other accessories

Another early move the new sheriff made, that he seems to have retooled slightly afterward, occurred on Tuesday, December 4, the day after his swearing in.  Villanueva spent his first day on the job leading what he would describe in a follow-up email as “a unique training day that involved the entire brass of the Department, from the rank of lieutenant and above.”

At this “training,” Villanueva showed a video by legendary football coach, Lou Holtz, in which Holtz delivers his three rule for reaching “your true potential.”  For the record, they are:

        1. Do the right thing.
        2. Do everything to the best of your ability.
        3. Show other people you care.)

      ….Or words to that general effect. (Holtz has several versions of his three rules.)

      The video, which gave undeniably good advice, did not surprise anyone. But when the new sheriff asked every one of the supervisors gathered to take off the rank insignia on their collars, a great many of the brass were startled, especially when the take-off-your-brass command was accompanied by the announcement that each person should fill out resume forms for evaluation, to see if they would remain in their jobs.

      The startled lieutenants, captains, chiefs, et al, were eventually given permission to put the insignia back on a few days later.

      For some, however, uncomfortable feelings remained.

      Still, a look back at parts of our July 2017 interview with Villanueva points to at least some of what the new sheriff hoped to accomplish, even if some of his actions at his first official meeting with the department’s supervisors were jarring.

      In the interview, and in many of his subsequent campaign speeches, Villanueva announced his intention eliminate the people he perceived as bad apples left over from the toxic culture of the Lee Baca/Paul Tanaka years, referring to the former longtime sheriff, and his notorious undersheriff, both of whom have been convicted in federal trials an sentenced to three and five years respectively in federal prison.  (Baca is still appealing his conviction.)

      “The very same people that Tanaka identified, groomed, cultivated and basically pulled up through the ranks because of their willingness to look the other way, to accept cronyism and corruption as the status quo,” Villanueva told WLA in 2017, “those people are still in place today in critical executive positions throughout the organization. Those are the very same people who have basically convinced McDonnell that there’s no problem.”

    1. But they are a problem, he said.  “They are a major impediment to reform.”  So, if elected, he would get them out.

      Villanueva also told WLA that he intended to “recruit the people within the organization that I know are dedicated, educated, extremely bright, and experienced.” This seemed, in part, what he was reaching for with his “training exercise.”

      Most department members, working and retired, agree with the general principles, said a source close to the LASD of that first meeting. “But we want to see fairness.  If he starts being vindictive, against the people who did him wrong, we’re going to start to worry.”

    2. Cards face up

      Justice advocates and other interest parties outside the department, have had their own hope and worries.

      Some of these were expressed when, on December 4, LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman, sent a hand delivered letter to the new sheriff (which WLA acquired).

      “At your swearing in ceremony, I was pleased to hear your emphasis on transparency and community policing,” Huntsman wrote. “I agree that the best way to form policy is by engaging the community and the deputies together to see what will benefit both.

      “The status quo has given us a discipline system that often fails due to understaffing, a lack of transparency that leads to distrust between the public and deputies, and a paralysis that has led to 50 years of growing influence by secret societies.

      “It’s time for secrecy to be put it behind us for the good of the police and the policed. Upcoming legal changes will make that a reality and I look forward to working with you and the civilian oversight commission to make the transition as smooth one.”

      About a week later, at public meeting having to do with probation reform, Huntsman again brought up the benefits of transparency, and cooperative interaction with the communities.

      “Sheriff McDonell made a whole lot of changes in policy and they didn’t tell us. The previous sheriff,” he said, referring to Baca, “was unwilling to share any policy changes in advance.”

      According to Huntsman, this close-to-the-vest attitude repeatedly got in the way of real problem solving.

      He hoped, he said, that with the new sheriff, things would be different.

      “I personally believe,” Huntsman concluded, “that, in a democracy, playing with your cards face up” is the best thing to do.

      We do too.  Since transparency is another of Sheriff Villanueva’s main campaign promises, it will be important to see what that looks like in practice.