By Ray Richardson
LOS ANGELES — A public safety forum Sept. 12 gave the Black community a chance to evaluate if Alex Villanueva should remain Los Angeles County sheriff, or if former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna should replace the controversial incumbent.
Villanueva and Luna appeared at The Gathering Spot in West Los Angeles for a unique debate that was broadcast live on KBLA 1580 AM, an all-Black talk radio station founded by Tavis Smiley.
The candidates displayed contrasting styles and rhetoric for Black voters to consider in the general election on Nov. 8.
“This department needs a different leader,” Luna told the predominantly Black audience. This nonsense of ‘us vs. them’ has to go.”
Villanueva, seeking a second term, did not shy away from his approach.
“Yes, I do stir the pot,” Villanueva told the audience. “Is my language a little too tough at times and hurts peoples’ feelings? Yes. I’m here to do a job. I’m not a career politician.”
Smiley moderated the two-hour event. Villanueva and Luna each were given an hour to answer questions from KBLA personalities Dominique Diprima, Nii-Quartelai Quartey and Angela Reddock-Wright.
Questions posed to the candidates included racial profiling, far-right extremism in law enforcement, response time in Black and Latino communities, officer-involved shootings, fatalities while in custody and other topics.
Villaneuva and Luna did not appear on stage together. The forum was designed to give each candidate an opportunity to discuss his platform without the normal debate format, which often leads to back-and-forth jabs and heated conversations.
Both men sat in the audience for an hour while their opponent occasionally fired sharp criticisms.
“As your new sheriff, my No. 1 priority is to restore credibility and trust in the community,” Luna said.
Villanueva attacked Luna’s minority hiring record.
“I promoted a Black deputy to chief in my first month on the job,” Villanueva said. “Luna had a 23% minority hiring rate when he was in Long Beach.”
Luna faced accusations of racism and minority hiring when he was Long Beach police chief from 2014 to 2021. Luna admitted during the public forum that his minority hiring record “could have been a lot better.”
Villanueva, however, has a lot more baggage to overcome in his battle to get re-elected. Numerous controversies have dominated his term as sheriff since he was elected in 2018.
In addition to allegations of questionable treatment of minorities by deputies, Villanueva has had to deal with ongoing battles with the county Board of Supervisors, his controversial comments about Blacks and minorities and lawsuits filed against the department by former deputies.
LaJuana Haselrig, a retired chief in the Sheriff’s Department, filed the latest lawsuit Sept. 12, claiming Villanueva, a commander and a deputy tried to cover up a video that showed a deputy with his knee on the head and neck of a man while in custody. Haselrig’s lawsuit claims she was “pressured” to retire in March after reporting the incident.
Villaneuva also had to discipline deputies for sharing photos of victims of the helicopter crash scene in 2020 that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and eight others. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, won a $16 million settlement in her lawsuit against L.A. County for “invasion of privacy.”
Perhaps the most documented controversy Villanueva has had to weather is the presence of “deputy gangs” allegedly operating in the sheriff’s department. Inspector General Max Huntsman, who oversees the sheriff’s department revealed in March that at least 41 deputies were involved with internal groups known as the “Banditos” and “Executioners.”
After the public forum, Villaneuva insisted that he has eliminated the “deputy gang” influence in his department.
“I don’t have any questions or concerns about current deputies,” Villaneuva told The Wave. “The people causing problems are all gone. When I took over, I removed all the commanders from the East L.A. Station, then I launched an investigation. We fired four, suspended 22 without pay and transferred 36.”
Luna, who has been endorsed by all of the members of the Board of Supervisors, was asked about his response if he learned there was still a “deputy gang” presence in the department.
“Can an outsider fix the problem?” Luna asked. “Yes. I’m the person who’s going to fix it. For employees to be involved and the supervisors looking the other way, well, they don’t need to be supervisors. When you mention gangs and the police in the same sentence, that is wrong.”
Luna also addressed the far-right extremism issue, particularly with rising concerns that the culture exists within police agencies around the country.
“If I find out that you were charging up those stairs on Jan. 6, you have no business being a police officer,” Luna said in reference to the Capitol Hill riot in Washington, D.C. in 2021.
Whoever wins the election is facing a monumental challenge to restore the department’s effectiveness.
Out of 500 sheriff’s departments nationwide evaluated by PoliceScoreCard.org, an independent organization that monitors police agencies, Los Angeles County ranked No. 499 in a composite of key performance categories. The organization did a seven-year evaluation of sheriff’s departments between 2013 and 2020.
Categories used to compile data included using less force, making fewer arrests for low-level offenses, solving murder cases more often, holding officers more accountable and spending less on policing overall.
Only Franklin County in Ohio, which includes the city of Columbus, had a worse ranking than Los Angeles County.
“It’s a new day for the department with new inclusive policies,” Villanueva said. “We’ve gotten rid of the good old-boy system under former [sheriffs]. Our morale is very high.”
Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for The Wave. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.