At this point in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department descent into ignominy, it’s clear to even the casual observer that Sheriff Alex Villanueva isn’t just willing to play in the mud, he seems to enjoy it like a hog in a heatwave.
But with the upcoming election and the numerous headlines our sheriff generates, the significance of one of Villanueva’s recent stunts has largely sunk in the mire. Let me pull it back to the top, because it has big implications not just for our sheriff, but for sheriffs across the state and for those who care about criminal justice reform.
As my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian reported, Villanueva recently wrote to California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta asking him to investigate whether county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and others were tipped off prior to the Sheriff’s Department serving search warrants on them. Continuing a long-running hissy fit against any type of oversight, Villanueva accused L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman of contacting Kuehl and others the night before to warn them.
Depending on whom you ask, that search was either part of an investigation about exposing public corruption or the sheriff abusing his power to go after political rivals.
It was Bonta’s unexpected response that should be garnering more attention. Sure, the state’s top cop wrote back in a public letter to Villanueva, I’ll look into the leak.
And while I’m at it, I’ll take over the investigation — because I have authority over sheriffs.
Bonta ordered Villanueva to turn over what he had, and have a seat.
That is a thunderclap of a statement because sheriffs routinely assert that they are answerable only to voters, and previous attorneys general have rarely argued otherwise. And despite years of trying, legislators have failed to pass any meaningful reforms to rein in the power of sheriffs.
In fact, some so-called “constitutional sheriffs,” of which there are a handful in California, say they de facto are the law in their territories, above even federal authorities. They embrace far-right ideologies that extremists hope will encourage sheriffs to intervene in coming elections.
But Bonta — a criminal justice reformer who grew up living in a trailer at the United Farm Workers compound in La Paz in the Central Valley, just a stone’s throw from Cesar Chavez’s house — sees it differently. He doesn’t think sheriffs are above the law or arbiters of it, and he told me Wednesday that oversight and accountability are crucial to rebuilding the trust that law enforcement everywhere sorely lacks. In his letter, he asserted that the California Constitution gives him the authority to step into any investigation, even over a sheriff.
“We don’t shy away from it when we feel it’s appropriate to get involved,” he said.
Though Bonta declined to talk about the Los Angeles fiasco directly, he said this case contained a “very unique set of circumstances,” and that it “made sense for us to take the entire case.” Part of that logic was because Villanueva had previously recused himself from the investigation, meaning he “recognizes that he should be recused from any related matters,” Bonta wrote.
I’m pretty sure Villanueva didn’t see that one coming — and the fact that Villanueva threw open the door and invited Bonta in, only to find himself pushed out to the porch, has more than one legal expert laughing.
The state attorney general rarely takes over individual investigations from local law enforcement. It’s not uncommon to see so-called “pattern and practice” investigations that look at entire departments largely from a civil rights perspective. But cherry-picking a single probe — that’s treading on another cop’s territory, and it’s not something to be done lightly.
It’s so rare that the only example of it happening previously that experts could cite to me was in 1981, when then-Los Angeles Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp tried to drop murder charges against Angelo Buono, one of two men accused of raping, torturing and murdering 10 women in the Hillside Strangler case.
It was one of the highest-profile trials in Los Angeles in an era when serial killers seemed insanely common in Southern California. But Van de Kamp thought that the prosecution was a loser because it rested on the unreliable testimony of Buono’s cousin and accomplice, Kenneth Bianchi. Van de Kamp asked the judge to dismiss the murder charges, instead planning on going after lesser sex crime counts.
The judge refused, and then-state Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian stepped in, took over the prosecution and won.
Deukmejian went on to be elected governor in 1982. Van de Kamp lost his own bid for governor in 1990, with the case dogging him until he was forced to publicly admit he made a mistake.
The only other instance I could find when an attorney general came close to poaching a particular investigation was in 2004, when then-Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer considered taking over the prosecution of a cop killer from Kamala Harris, then the district attorney in San Francisco. Harris had declined to seek the death penalty, prompting the union and the officer’s family to make the request. Lockyer reviewed the case, making considerable political noise, but ultimately declined to take it away from Harris.
While the move to hijack the Sheriff Department’s investigation is singular, it’s not surprising. If Villanueva had been able to see past his own ego, he might have predicted this. Bonta has been one of the most active attorneys general in recent times when it comes to oversight.
When he was in the Assembly, prior to Gov. Gavin Newsom appointing him to his role in 2021, Bonta helped author a bill that gave the attorney general greater power to intervene in officer-involved shootings by requiring them to conduct independent investigations every time a law enforcement officer kills an unarmed person. His office is currently looking at two dozen cases across the state, including the recent deaths of Luis Herrera and Marcos Maldonado in Los Angeles — though none of those inquiries have concluded.
He’s also reviewed cases that were otherwise at legal dead ends.
Just a few months after taking office, Bonta examined the fatal shooting of a developmentally disabled man and the wounding of his parents in a Corona Costco in 2019 by a then-LAPD off-duty officer.
A Riverside grand jury declined to charge Los Angeles Police Department officer Salvador Sanchez, though Sanchez was fired from the LAPD after the incident. Bonta charged Sanchez with voluntary manslaughter and assault with a semiautomatic firearm in a case that is still pending.
“Being licensed to carry a gun doesn’t mean you’re not accountable for how you use it. No matter who you are, nobody is above the law,” Bonta said at the time.
He’s also stepped in to give another look at how local district attorneys handled the police killings of Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo and Oscar Grant in Oakland. Both killings are high-profile law enforcement shootings that left their communities angry and mistrustful — Grant’s mother asked for Bonta’s help.
In the Monterrosa death, Bonta said his decision to intervene was because the “Solano County District Attorney unilaterally abdicated her responsibility as the elected district attorney and refused to conduct a review.”
This shows Bonta isn’t afraid to go after law enforcement if he thinks it’s warranted. I asked him what other sheriffs across the state should make of him taking over this investigation from Villanueva, the most powerful sheriff in California, and arguably in the country.
He said they can “draw whatever conclusions they wish. I think our actions speak for themselves.”
I hope that’s the warning it seems like. Because Villanueva isn’t the only cowboy-hat wearing Wild West sheriff running loose in California — and the truth is their Doc Holliday act has never been as charming as they think.
And though Villanueva has run his campaign as the toughest Latino in town, it turns out a Filipino kid from the Central Valley may have the bigger badge.
More importantly, he has the guts to wield it.