Los Angeles County voters just sent a powerful and threatening message to mock sheriffs across California: enforce the laws, even the ones you don’t like, or you might not last long in office.
They did it in two emphatic ways: First, they defeated the state’s front-runner, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, by more than 18 percentage points, more than 320,000 votes. Then, further down their ballots, they voted by an overwhelming 69 percent majority to allow future sheriffs to be fired if 80 percent of their county supervisors vote to remove them.
This local proposal, known as Measure A, stated that sheriffs could only be arrested if they broke laws, grossly neglected their duties, embezzled funds, falsified documents or thwarted investigations. Villanueva was informally charged with nearly all of them.
Villanueva may have been the most outspoken of California’s scofflaws of the law, and with his well-publicized refusals to enforce a COVID-19 quarantine and cover-up, attempts to obstruct the work of the county supervisors’ commission, approve proxy gangs and more, he’s come a long way. 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 peak of Covid infections, which have so far killed more than 93,000 Californians. In late 2020, before Covid vaccines began to reduce cases and hospitalizations, at least two dozen law enforcement agencies were refusing to observe or enforce emergency stay-at-home, crowd-size, and mask orders by state and local public health officials.
Of the five counties with the highest seven-day average number of Covid cases in the week before Christmas 2020, only one has taken strict enforcement measures to protect its residents.
Wherever these measures have been applied, they have proved effective. Statistics show that more than 40,000 Californians would be dead today if this state followed the laissez faire, everything remains open approach used in Florida and some other states.
But the sheriffs didn’t care. Villanueva was not moved to act, nor were sheriffs in nearby Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, as far north as Del Norte County on the Oregon border, among others.
But nothing happened to Villanueva or the other refusing sheriffs until it was time for Villanueva to seek re-election this fall. That’s when his political house collapsed.
There is no doubt that former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, Villanueva’s successor, will be much more circumspect and ensure that even laws that are unpopular or inconvenient, such as the anti-Covid tactic, are enforced. But it is not certain what can happen elsewhere. For example, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco was re-elected directly in the June 7 primary, giving him another four years in office.
But Measure A provides an example that shows elected supervisors in other counties, who have never had much power over sheriffs, that they too can bring recalcitrant law enforcement overlords to heel. That goes for reluctant law enforcement in counties from Sacramento to Imperial near the Mexican border.
Villanueva opposed Measure A as “an illegal proposal that would allow corrupt supervisors to intimidate sheriffs from carrying out their official duties to investigate crime.” Of course, he faced his own investigation just after the November vote, with the local district attorney now dealing with allegations that he tried to remind his constituents about campaign donations once he realized his re-election was in doubt.
Anyway, the vast majority of Los Angeles County voters ignored Villanueva’s protests and he will be gone soon. Whether he is being prosecuted for corruption for allegedly soliciting campaign money from MPs with the implicit threat of punishment if they don’t contribute remains uncertain.
But county supervisors, who voted 4-1 to place Measure A on the ballot, said they believe it is guilty of at least three of the deficiencies cited in the proposal as grounds for dismissal.
If Villanueva’s loss and the easy passage of Measure A doesn’t tell other sheriffs that they have to enforce even laws they don’t like, it’s hard to imagine what could.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]