LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva on his mistakes, and violence at the county jail

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Sheriff Alex Villanueva in an interview with KCRW at his office at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, on March 21, 2019. Photo by Andrew Weilert/KCRW

It’s been nearly four months since Alex Villanueva was sworn in as the 33rd Sheriff of Los Angeles County. He leads one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country, with about 18,000 employees and a $3.4 billion annual budget.

Villanueva campaigned on a message of “reform, rebuild and restore,” and promised to bring back morale in the department, while strengthening ties to the communities patrolled by deputies.

But during his first months in office, Villanueva has become the most controversial elected official in Los Angeles County because of his decisions. He has sacked the department’s top command staff, and hired campaign aid and former deputy Caren "Carl" Mandoyan.

Mandoyan was was fired in 2016 for domestic abuse and stalking accusations. He proposed creating a truth and reconciliation panel, where deputies who were sanctioned for misconduct could have their cases reheard. (However, it was reported that the panel already existed and operated secretly.)

Villanueva’s decisions have outraged Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors and civil rights groups, who say those decisions are unnecessary and likely illegal. Critics fear Villanueva is trying to undermine past reforms and systems already in place to investigate and sanction deputies.

KCRW talked to Sheriff Villanueva about these issues and others at his office at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles.

Interview highlights

What Villanueva admits to doing wrong

“Probably in dealing with the Board of Supervisors, understanding that they had their entire operation vested in the other guy, the one who lost... So I don't think they were prepared for the way I run the department. And I'm kind of more old school, I believe, in following the rule of law and how there should be a proper balance in the relationship between the Board of Supervisors and the sheriff's department.”

Where do the strains between Villanueva and the supervisors come from?

“I think they became accustomed to a sheriff who was acting more like a chief of police, which means that they were acquiescing to the mayor, city council, and so forth. Whereas the sheriff is an entirely different animal… You’re the leader of the entire organization, and you have to have a proper balance in your relationship with the Board of Supervisors. You need them to approve your budget. However, they do not run your department. You run the department. You make the decisions on who is hired, who's fired, who's retained, and everything in between. And that is how the California Constitution set up the Office of Sheriff, and I don't think they were prepared for someone to assume that role in the traditional sense.”

Who is Villanueva’s boss?

“I still answer to the voter every single day… Every elected office is a temporary job. And every day you serve, you have to serve to advance the interests of the public, not your own. And the job is not built for me to be answerable to the Board of Supervisors or the Office of the Inspector General, the Civilian Oversight Commission. I'm answerable directly to the voters. They are literally my boss.”

Villanueva got a lot of attention when he said he would fire much of the executive staff, and he has let people go recently. Why was the firing necessary? Has he refilled those positions with people who are more intelligent, skilled, and talented?

“I wouldn't be able to measure the IQ of each person coming or going. However, I inherited an organization that was dysfunctional. There was a lot of issues of corruption from the past, even preceding McDonnell. A lot of very bad decisions were made that impacts good people. And the people that made all these bad decisions were still part of the senior staff of the organization. I had no interest in having them continue to serve because they just lacked the credibility to make ethical decisions in their capacity, be it as a captain commander, chief, assistant sheriff, and above.”

Why did Villanueva hire back Caren "Carl" Mandoyan?

“Throughout the campaign, I spoke about truth and reconciliation, and I believe that everyone is entitled to due process... He was denied his due process because the system the department used at the time -- has now since been ruled by the Employee Relations Commission -- is the wrong set of standards. The guidelines for discipline were pretty much changed unilaterally by the previous administration without going for the formal meet-and-confer process with the bargaining unions. And you can't change the rules of the games or move the goalpost to your liking to have a different outcome. You have to follow a certain set of rules and procedures to get there, even if your end result is one you want and is a legal end result. You have to do it in a lawful manner. That didn’t happen.”

The truth and reconciliation panel: is it about reopening cases of people who've been punished?

“It is going to look like that at face value, that we're opening cases. But what we're actually doing is allowing for procedural justice to take place… The organization cannot move on, cannot heal itself until we acknowledge the mistakes of the past, and we rectify them. And that is a feature of truth and reconciliation.

… And we cannot air things public only because there's confidentiality of personnel records. So within the context of maintaining the confidentiality, we still want to have a chance where people can seek redress, and people can be held accountable if they did wrong.

For example, if someone was artificially altering the outcome of cases for political vendetta as retaliation, I don't want that person serving as an investigator anymore in the organization. We're going to move them out of those sensitive positions, somewhere else where they're not going to do harm… How do we mend the fences, and get people to acknowledge that we did bad in the past, we're going to move on to do better in the future?”

Managing the jail system: Villanueva is confident that violence has increased more than 200 percent

“I will submit that our numbers, which are solid, was inmate-on-staff assaults -- they rose 204 percent in a five year span, 2013 to 2018. Inmate-on-inmate assaults rose 31 percent in that same time frame. Deputies-using-force-against-inmates rose 99 percent in that same time frame. These numbers are solid numbers.”

If an inmate takes a swing at the sheriff's personnel, should that staffer take a swing back?

“I sure hope the deputy defends himself. They're not expected to put their hands in their pocket. Previous -- the impact of how those policies were implemented gave the perception that deputies shouldn't defend themselves. So a lot of deputies were very timid or uncertain about that. And that created the perception among the inmate population that these people are not in charge anymore.

Villanueva’s message to people working in the jails is ‘don’t second guess yourself’

“Take assertive action when you need to. Don't go overboard. Once the inmate is handcuffed and secured, there's no playing catch up… Be smart, anticipate. Don't overcommit or take independent action where you're going to wind up all by yourself in a crowd of inmates. Smart things. And that's the message we're carrying to the jails.

...That's our goal -- is make sure everyone in our jail environment is safe, not just one group or another group, or one group at the expense of another group.”

How does Villanueva calm the nerves of people who might think he has an inner authoritarian/Donald Trump in him?

“I'm not afraid to do the right thing for the right reasons. And I have no interest in being a career politician whose very first official act is always to protect themselves at the expense of somebody… I'm not going to do that.

If I'm gonna lead our organization -- we have roughly 18,000 employees -- lead them effectively, I have to be honest. I have to make sure that I support what they do, hold them accountable when they do wrong. But that's a whole job of sheriff -- have a very good balance between accountability and support.”

How can the public measure Villanueva’s success in a year or two?

“Our success is not going to be measured by how many people we take to jail, but by how many people don't go to jail.

Hopefully that means that we have a better working relationship with the community; that we've dropped our complaint rates; we've been successful at recruiting people from the community to become deputy sheriffs; we’ll have increased participation in our neighborhood watch; we're going to have lower response times; and we're going to have a better working relationship with all the communities that we serve.

And some of that is difficult to measure. But you can see it already happening right now, where people are actually excited where we go, the things we do, the people we're talking to on the street. They are happy that we're actually doing the things like I said on the campaign trail. Everything I said on the campaign trail, I'm following through it.

...By the end of 2020, we're going to get back to full staffing model. So the 863 or 865 vacancies that we inherited, hopefully are going to be gone by the end of next year… Then I can start getting people out to training, which they need, and they're not getting. And with that training comes better results.”