Sheriff Candidates Criticize Absent Sheriff Villanueva

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From left to right, Commander Eli Vera, Lt. Eric Strong, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna and LAX police chief Cecil Rhambo.

The forum for candidates for Los Angeles County sheriff was mostly defined by who wasn’t there — current Sheriff Alex Villanueva. The candidates gathered at the Warner Grand Theatre on Feb. 27 at an event organized by the San Pedro Democratic Club. They criticized Villanueva repeatedly — but Villanueva didn’t bother to show up to defend himself, even though he is running for re-election.

ILWU Southern California District Council President Floyd Bryan asked how they would institute reform and bring transparency and accountability. Bryan made it clear he wanted to ask this of Villanueva. While none of the candidates did much to differentiate themselves from each other, they all expressed how they would differ from the incumbent.

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Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna said that all the candidates at the forum were there because they wanted Villanueva out of office. He said he would lead by example in serving, but did not go into specifics.

Both Cecil Rhambo, chief of police at Los Angeles International Airport, and Eli Vera, a commander in the LA County Sheriff’s Department, said they would work with the Civilian Oversight Commission and the Office of Inspector General. Rhambo said he would listen to their input, and try to come to a consensus, even if he disagreed with them.

“That’s the way government, good government, works,” Rhambo said. “Good government does not work when people are being divisive and attacking one another. And I think that’s something that the current sheriff is doing.”

Vera criticized Villanueva for ignoring subpoenas from the Civilian Oversight Commission and the Office of Inspector General.

“If you’re the chief law enforcement officer for the County of Los Angeles, how do you not respond to the subpoena?” Vera said. “You’re teaching your deputy sheriffs that if someone disagrees with you, that someone has a difference of opinion from you, then you utterly shun them. You call them names; you treat them with disrespect.”

Lt. Eric Strong of the LA County Sheriff’s Department said true transparency and reform would require setting policies.

“We need to set policies about if there’s a video, captured on a body cam that public funds paid for, why are we then having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year fighting to get that video released?” Strong said.

Strong also said that jails should be open to the public for tours, and called for more community oversight over every station and jail.

How to gain trust
Joe Gatlin, founder and vice president of the San Pedro chapter of the NAACP, asked the candidates what they would do to make people of color  less afraid of police. The candidates focused on ways for police to be more involved in casual community events — instead of how the police can treat Black and Latino people better.

Strong, who is Black, said he had been profiled and roughed up himself. Both Rhambo and Luna said they have been racially profiled as well. Strong argued that the department should engage with the community more often, but also should educate deputies better.

“I don’t think that the training that we give is relevant,” Strong said. “And when I speak to that, I mean the training in diversity, dealing with diverse communities, implicit bias. Right now, it’s a checkbox.”

Strong also criticized how 8% of the sheriff’s department is Black, but that more than 40 to 50% of contacts, arrests and use of force were against Black people. However, the only solution he gave was to hire more Black deputies, and have the members of the department attend community events.

Vera, Rhambo and Luna also said they want their deputies to get to know the communities they are working with. Vera said they should listen and respond to grievances against the department, and Rhambo also wanted to improve the implicit bias training.

Gangs in the department
Unsurprisingly, all candidates were vehemently against deputy-led gangs within the department.

Vera said that he did not have a problem with the gangs at any of the stations he ran, because he did not tolerate them. He claimed that if he were in charge, he could change this within weeks.

“In order to change the culture of the entire organization, you have to have the authority to do so,” Vera said. “You’re very much limited as sergeant, lieutenant or captain. Today, in 2022, that’s something that we can change the policies, change the cultures, and put that behind us within the first couple of weeks of coming into office in the sheriff’s department.”

Strong said part of the problem is that Villanueva does not acknowledge the gangs. However, he pointed out that they have existed for decades before Villanueva took office. He said it’s a small part of the department, but since it takes up a lot of attention, it’s a huge problem until it’s addressed and stopped.

“The way we do that is we speak to it right away, day one,” Strong said. “It’s not allowed, it’s not tolerated, we will not accept it, and we put a stop to it.”

Strong said he would create a new process for promoting deputies. Under the current system, there is no legitimate testing process to get promoted, and Strong says this silences people, as they must do whatever their superiors say if they want to progress.

Luna said that the FBI, federal or state department of justice need to investigate the deputy-led gangs. He also argued that the department needs an outsider to address this, as he is the only candidate who has never been part of the department.

Rhambo said he has sent members of the department to prison, some up to 50 years, and said he will do it again. He has connections with the FBI, the state and federal attorney general’s office, and other agencies that could investigate civil rights violations in the department and the jail system.

Board of Supervisors conflict
Villanueva has publicly feuded with the LA County Board of Supervisors, which oversees the sheriff’s department. The candidates all said they would remedy the conflict and get along with the supervisors.

Luna said that the conflict between the department and the supervisors makes the county unsafe, as collaboration is necessary for governance.

“If you have people up in front of a camera calling each other names, people lose confidence in their government,” Luna said.

Vera said that if deputies spoke to the community as Villanueva does, they would be fired.

“He’d like to lead you to believe that what he’s experiencing is unique and that no sheriff has ever had these challenges,” Vera said. “I’m here to tell you that’s absolutely false.”

In his final statement, Rhambo doubled down on his opposition to Villanueva.

“We have to galvanize under one strong candidate if we’re going to defeat Alex Villanueva,” Rhambo said. “Please be thoughtful in your selection.”

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