LAW & ORDER - Democrats in L.A. County need to do our homework and choose the best candidate to defeat and replace the disastrous rogue sheriff, Alex Villanueva.
Any rush to judgment that results in a weak alternative unable to withstand a brutal runoff next fall could anoint a loser and end up prolonging the nightmarish tenure of the incumbent.
In the June 7 primary election, voters can begin the end of the thuggish ineptitude and Trumpian temper tantrum against accountability that have defined Alex Villanueva’s three years in office. Smelling his vulnerability with voters along with the stench of deputy gangs, negligence with unvaccinated officers, and scorched earth in his shift toward Republicans and repudiation by Democrats, no less than eight candidates are vying to oust the incumbent. It is likely one of them will qualify along with him for a November 8 runoff to win the job.
Democrats, especially those of us who serve on the L.A. County Central Committee, need to select the strongest option to prevail in that showdown. We need to pin down the challengers on the brass tacks of specific reforms. We also need assess the sturdiness of their record, how susceptible they are to scathing hits, and how ably they might build a winning coalition. Only then can we separate the wannabes from the best who is most likely to win and serve all Angelenos with competence and integrity.
Based on our homework so far, we believe there is a strong challenger who deserves more attention among Democrats.
Robert Luna, outgoing police chief in the city of Long Beach, is the only serious candidate for sheriff from outside the ranks of current or former deputies. He brings stellar credentials in education, including a Masters of Public Administration from CSU-Long Beach, and in modern police management and governance, as the western region representative of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA). He also boasts high marks from the LGBT community and others in Long Beach, a meaningful base of support for a countywide candidate.
Luna’s focus on gun violence prevention and getting firearms off streets along with protecting and assisting unhoused residents in accessing services, instead of ignoring their victimization and chasing and removing them, is smart. So is his reform agenda, which includes employee wellness to respond to early warnings of misuse of force, substance abuse, and other misconduct by officers. He expresses familiarity in answering to a mayor and other community stakeholders and readiness to do so with County Supervisors and the public. He is upfront about being not fully aligned with District Attorney George Gascón, but what is promising is that the two have a deep and long-standing relationship of trust going back more than 20 years. Collaboration and positive experience with shared governance: not revolutionary, but what a relief.
Robert Luna could shape up as a worthy challenger in a runoff and make a good sheriff. But instead of giving this strong contestant a careful look and fair consideration, too many Democrats in L.A. County are overlooking him and lining up prematurely behind a candidate who may have serious flaws and could falter under close scrutiny: Cecil Rhambo, a longtime deputy sheriff and now police chief at L.A. Airport.
What happened at a recent meet-and-greet gathering for Rhambo in Lancaster did not instill full confidence. The candidate failed to recognize a question about a basic tool, developed here in L.A. by USC, to compile and track officers terminated for wrongdoing so that public safety agencies can find, flag, and prevent hiring of troubled, violent, or criminal applicants. The LEWIS Registry, named for the late Congressman John Lewis, is a background-check database fast becoming a baseline resource to reduce risk and liability and improve quality of personnel as well as public trust. (To Rhambo’s credit, he did follow up after the gathering about the LEWIS Registry. But he offered only a vague, not concrete, offer to pursue such a tool in L.A. County.)
The value of focused questions and firm commitments seemed lost on one of Rhambo’s Democratic boosters. Instead of putting any original query to the candidate, she latched onto an unhelpful statement he made alleging that ordinary people need to take more responsibility for objectionable behavior, including by our kids, that might incur attention from deputies.
This was a deflection from troubling evidence of deputies’ targeting Black and Latino youth riding bicycles, a pattern of racial profiling that Villanueva has defended. It also downplays grave concern about abuse and killings, which continue in the Antelope Valley despite a 2015 settlement agreement by the Sheriff’s Department with the U.S. Justice Department. Life-or-death anxiety about police interaction is a daily reality for thousands of Angelenos. An innocent person of color can be killed in an instant after a momentary brush with officers, even while taking out the trash. Remarks by both Rhambo and his most aggressive promoter seemed to put the onus on residents ourselves to stop racial profiling or other forms of dehumanization, discrimination, and abuse by deputies. This month brought another ugly reminder that too many on-duty officers glorify hateful behavior and may be prone to inflicting it, with disclosure of racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic text messages among more than 12 members of the Torrance Police Department.
The in-person exchange with Chief Rhambo was discouraging. Some of the rhetoric barely differed from the horrific incumbent’s.
Choosing better requires doing better now. We have options, and one is Robert Luna, who in Long Beach has implemented the LEWIS Registry and early-intervention warning systems for misconduct in the officer ranks with superiors responsible for monitoring, training, and discipline. Luna pledges to institute both these modern tools for less violent, more accountable public safety at the Sheriff’s Department if he earns the top job. He also commits to releasing regular reports about the numbers of such candidates or deputies flagged by these tools to keep the public informed and build transparency and trust.
Democrats need to put clear questions to the candidates for County Sheriff about concrete reforms. We must evaluate how their past actions prove their priorities, how they would face attacks and answer them, and how they will attract donor support and build a solid majority of voters to prevail countywide. This is how we ascertain the best Democrat and ultimately inspire Angelenos to elect the best new sheriff. Democracy can be self-correcting, but only when Democrats do the work to endorse and unite behind the very best challenger. The stakes are way to high to settle for anything less.
(Hans Johnson is a longtime leader of national and local LGBT organizations, director of winning environmental justice campaigns, and advocate for human rights and workplace safety from abuse and harassment. A resident of Eagle Rock, he is president of the East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD), the largest grassroots Democratic club in California.)
(Arthur Calloway is a military veteran, small business owner, father, and catalyst for police accountability in the Antelope Valley, including Lancaster and Palmdale, where he has led protests to spotlight a pattern of killings by sheriff’s deputies of unarmed Black men. He is president of the Democratic Club of the High Desert (DCHD).)