A newsletter about sheriffs and the political power of law enforcement
The Terminator: Los Angeles’s Board of Supervisors versus Sheriff Alex Villanueva
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl recently filed a motion for the BOS to consider proposals aimed at making it easier for the BOS to remove or impeach the Los Angeles Sheriff, limit the sheriff’s scope of powers, and possibly convert the sheriff to an appointed position. The document lays out in detail the many accusations against the current Sheriff Alex Villaneuva, including obstruction of investigations into shooting deaths, mismanagement of funds, and his bizarre choice to threaten the end of the Parks Services Bureau, which simply patrols neighborhood parks and seems like the most productive thing the LASD does.
Between the motion itself and a recent editorial by Robert Greene, there is already quite a lot of material on the specific problems with Sheriff Villanueva as well as the many bipartisan calls for him to resign. As Greene points out, the BOS nearly considered a similar impeachment provision last year, but changed their mind and opted to increase oversight instead. Now, it seems, the time has come.
I don’t think I have a lot to add about Sheriff Villanueva, and I have written about him before. But, I thought I could offer some broader background about sheriff removal procedures and why it’s so damn difficult, both legally and politically.
There are, generally speaking, three main ways to get rid of bad sheriffs. Some states have impeachment procedures where a judge, the county prosecutor, or county commissioners can initiate impeachment proceedings, which resemble something like a trial. Others have recall election procedures that enable citizens to trigger a recall election, sometimes with a gate-keeping mechanism, such a court hearing to assess probable cause. And some states, like Florida, allow the governor and the legislature to suspend or remove sheriffs.
From my research, all of these procedures are severely limited by the common law-based rationales required for a legitimate removal. In Florida, a state where there is more state power than county power, the governor can suspend a sheriff for “misfeasance” or “neglect of duty.” In Idaho, sheriffs can be removed for “failure to pay county fees” or “refusal to offer assistance” (per the opinion of the governor). In Alabama, impeachment can happen for ”willful neglect of duty,” “corruption,” “incompetency,” “intemperance,” (e.g. drinking on the job) and “any offense involving moral turpitude” as well as allowing a lynching. As you can see, many of these reasons range from outdated to depressing. (The fee-related provisions are all a way to keep Black people out of office for they frequently could not afford the fee or bond required to become sheriff.)
There are also often substantial procedural requirements that serve as hurdles for any community members who want to remove their sheriff. For example, many states require that the charges against the sheriffs be stated with specificity “as to time and place,” so charges relying on concealed information (for example, what exact time and date did the sheriff destroy evidence?) are often dismissed for lack of specificity. Of course, sheriffs are not required to provide information and generally lack transparency in terms of procedures, as seen in the case of jails deaths, so that kind of information seems nearly impossible for someone to obtain (or is subject to destruction by the sheriff).
So, for example, it seems easier, relatively speaking, to remove sheriffs for not arresting people, but it is unprecedented to remove sheriffs for arresting too many people or for allowing too many people to die in custody from medical neglect or excessive force. (As a historical note, the use of excessive force in jails by sheriffs and deputies was considered a way to prevent lynching.) Many of the historical examples of sheriff removals involve sheriffs who turned a blind eye to bootleggers and gamblers. The modern equivalent would be the removal of sheriffs for failure to enforce business closures and stay-at-home orders enacted by the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In California, counties determine independently whether to create provisions that would enable the BOS to remove a sheriff. San Bernardino, for example, passed a measure in 2002 that allows for the removal of any county officer, including a sheriff, by a four-fifths vote. The San Bernardino sheriff did not like that idea, so he sued. But, he lost. To my knowledge, this specific provision has not been used. (But if I am wrong, kind readers, please let me know.)
That’s the bad news. The good news is that while the California constitution requires each county to have a sheriff, it allows the counties to delineate the jobs the sheriff performs. In other words, nothing seems to stop the county from disaggregating the sheriff’s different roles. (The current proposal suggests a municipal police chief, but it’s not clear how that would impact contract cities that pay for LASD services.) This has been done before. Just a few years ago, San Joaquin County removed the job of coroner (“coronering?”) from the sheriff’s office because of corruption. The sheriff didn’t fight the measure, which passed unanimously. (He lost his election thanks to many costly screw-ups.) So, removing certain aspects of county governance from the sheriff – like patrolling parks – appears to be perfectly within the rights of the BOS.
Finally, Robert Greene in an editorial for the Los Angeles Times points out that California Government Code Sec. 3060 allows for the removal of county officers through a non-criminal indictment by a grand jury and a trial. Greene properly points out that this provision only applies to “willful or corrupt misconduct in office.” He argues that the accusations against Villaneuva thus far don’t seem to meet that standard, in contrast to ex-Sheriff John Casper Cline, who was removed from office for embezzling money intended to feed inmates. (Cline cold his own tin badges to his volunteer deputies.)
Section 3060 hasn’t been used much, for sure, and there’s no question that the procedure itself is burdensome and doesn’t solve the problem of giving the Board of Supervisors more control over the otherwise un-policed sheriff. There are many good reasons to give the BOS more authority as San Bernardino has done, the primary one being that it provides the checks-and-balances that are sorely lacking in county-level law enforcement.
I found one Section 3060 example that is pretty old. In a 1961 case, the sheriff of Tuolomne County (east of Stockton in the Sierra Nevada; very rural) was indicted under Section 3060 for failing to report the sexual abuse of a teenager. The facts as reported are pretty terrible. The sheriff said that he didn’t investigate the case because the teenage victim said she didn’t want to testify in court. The victim denied the sheriff’s version of events. Eventually, she went back to her father, who continued to abuse her and was later arrested and charged in Marin County.
The sheriff was indicted for “willful misconduct” because he intentionally did not report the situation to any other authorities. The court decided that “willful” meant the act was done with intention, and “misconduct” meant that it wasn’t something done for lack of experience or mistake. Ultimately, the court found that there was enough evidence to find that the sheriff intentionally concealed the situation and that this was “willful misconduct” because the sheriff was obligated to investigate given the “seriousness” of the case.
The case doesn’t really grapple with the exact nature of the obligation a sheriff owes to his constituents nor does it extend to any larger proposition beyond the facts. (It’s also before the Castle Rock decision.) But, I’d argue this precedent applies because of the following: 1) Section 3060 is clear that the removal proceeding is not a criminal case, so there’s no loss of liberty at stake, just loss of an elected position. 2) The case isn’t a lawsuit, so there’s no argument that the victim is owed anything in particular, just that the sheriff didn’t do his job. People certainly lose their jobs for less.