A new sheriff in town

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Sheriff Jim McDonnell conceded his bid for reelection against retired Sheriff’s Lieutenant Alex Villanueva, marking the first time in over a century that an incumbent sheriff has lost reelection in Los Angeles County. Villanueva will be sworn in as the new sheriff next Monday. KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis talked to the Sheriff-elect to discuss his surprising win and how he aims to clean house in a department that has been embroiled in some controversy.

Villanueva is inheriting a department that has faced scandal. A recent report by the Los Angeles Times indicated that Los Angeles Sheriff’s officers were stopping a disproportionate amount of Hispanic and Latino drivers on the I-5. At the same time, the department is under scrutiny for inner departmental cliques and a series of hazing that has sullied the department’s reputation.

Villanueva’s election campaign focused on changing the department. Last month, Villanueva told Warren Olney that he opposed McDonnell’s command staff, which he said was made up of the same individuals who were put in place by McDonnell’s predecessor, Lee Baca, and his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka. Both were at the center of criminal allegations, including obstruction of justice. Tanaka was convicted in 2016 and Baca was convicted in 2017.

Villanueva said the department was full of the “very same people that Paul Tanaka used to create the pay to play scandal.”

It may have been Villanueva’s promise to clean house that led some higher officials to oppose his election. Brian Moriguchi, the head of the Professional Peace Officers Association told the Los Angeles Times that electing Villanueva “would be like asking a drive-through teller at a fast-food restaurant to be the CEO of the company.”

Still, Villanueva did receive backing from the Democratic Party, which is another change from the norm; the sheriff’s race is normally non-partisan.

“It definitely helped me,” Villanueva said about the politicization of the election. “We’re in LA County, we’re in the deepest bluest county in the deepest bluest state, so to speak, so it definitely didn’t hurt me.”

Despite being the first Democratic sheriff to be elected in LA county in 138 years, Villanueva maintains that there will not be a political agenda.

Villanueva told Chiotakis that he wants to cut the bureaucratic fat that weighs down the department. “We have so much dead weight in the organization,” Villanueva said. “Remember, we have decades of bureaucracy. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy.”

As sheriff, Villanueva will aim to eliminate “public interest” bureaus, whose only function, he claims, is to give “the illusion” that they have any “worthwhile activity,” that serves the public interest.

By eliminating such departments, Villanueva says he can redirect funding and energy into law enforcement divisions that actually do have a positive impact, such as the SWAT team and Air Support Division.

Although Villanueva proclaimed victory last week, his opponent, Jim McDonnell, waited until Monday night before conceding victory. McDonnell called Villanueva to congratulate him. “He pledged his support in the transition period,” said Villanueva, and promised to “make sure there’s a smooth transition of power from sheriff to sheriff.”

Villanueva will be sworn in as the 33rd Sheriff of Los Angeles County on Monday.