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Posse Comitatus

A newsletter about sheriffs and the political power of law enforcement
LASD Sheriff Alex Villanueva during a meeting of the COC.

Worst Sheriff of the Year: Alex Villanueva

Last week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva finally appeared before the Civilian Oversight Commission, after multiple subpoenas and a judicial order. His first complaint? The COC was not doing enough to promote all of the good things the sheriffs had done.
The Inspector General Max Huntsman wrote a memo for this meeting called “The Unlawful Conduct of the LASD” that lists the many things Villanueva has managed to accomplish during his tenure thus far, none of them good. (The list is so extensive that the COC wasn’t able to even get to most of it.)
After some members of the COC spent a lot of time thanking the sheriff for doing a thing a judge made him do, the conversation centered on the issue of deputy gangs, taking a rather circular turn. At several points, Villanueva was asked whether he had been or knew of anyone who had been in a deputy gang. He denied participation, skirted the issue of who he knew, and then proceeded to argue that there were both good and bad deputies in gangs and not in gangs. Villanueva also protested that he could not possibly figure out how to assess which deputies were in a gang because to do so (by asking or checking or identifying markers) would violate the deputies’ First Amendment rights. Villanueva’s argument was that he had to wait for misconduct to happen. (Professor and Commissioner Sean Kennedy wrote the opposite.) Commissioner Robert Bonner pointed out that the LASD’s own policy forbids participation in a deputy gang on its face. Villanueva got irritated and called all of this a “legal opinion.” HMMM OKAY.
This is all aside from the Dana Young inquest where deputies pled the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify. And now there’s another coroner’s inquest involving the shooting death of Fred Williams III who was shot and killed by an LASD deputy as he was running away. Before this year, the coroner had not held an inquest (which is like a mini-trial where witnesses are subpoenaed to testify under oath) for 30 years.
Finally, the issue of how the COC operates deserves some mention. I’ve been thinking a lot about how oversight works and what the pitfalls are. A lot of credit in Los Angeles goes to Max Huntsman, who gets my award for Most Beleaguered Public Official. The sheriff has not made his job easy.
But the four-hour meeting also showed some of the general fault lines in the COC process itself. During the course of the meeting, Priscilla Ocen moved to allow the family of Dana Young, Jr. to speak without a time limit before the sheriff spoke even though Lael Rubin kept insisting on sticking to time limits to prevent the situation from “getting out of control.” Other members of the public then said they would give the Young family their allotted time to speak as a sort of mini-protest. (Dana Young’s grandmother described her harrowing experience of not knowing anything about her grandson’s death until she lifted him out of the coffin and saw a gunshot wound in the back of his head.)
I interpreted Ocen’s move as an attempt to shift the power dynamics. As Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò wrote, “The problem with policing is power, not prejudice. All of the possibilities for real, lasting, and meaningful change are downstream of community power. Until we demand and organize for power itself—rather than pleading for those who have it to take the actions we’d like—we will never get it.” This is a quote I think about in terms of civilian oversight.
The challenge of civilian oversight is often the gatekeeping function it serves, a way to filer the community feedback. While I understand the practical concern, it alienates the very people oversight is supposed to help. Sometimes, people talk about centering the “voices” of the impacted. That framing, in my view, though, obscures the purpose and contradiction of oversight. Voices calling for change aren’t enough; oversight must also serve to redistribute power to the people. Law Professor Jocelyn Simonson also addresses this is a recent law review where she addresses the need to shift the power dynamic in law enforcement oversight. She writes, “But when the idea of power-shifting is distilled out from movement-reform proposals, what emerges is a distinctly different way of thinking about police reform, one that centers power as much as it does instrumental or legitimacy goals.”
I interpret her as saying that it's not enough to just center “voices” (which can also simply serve to legitimize the current power structures), but real community control must also move power away from law enforcement leaders (here, the sheriff) and return it to the people. As Simonson points out, the results may not always be what institutional reformers expect. But, it is something I have thought about a lot lately, both in terms of criminal system reform and how journalists tell the stories of those impacted by the system (which can often replicate the same dynamics).

Other SoCal Sheriffs Who Deserve Mention

Overall, the sheriffs of Southern California seem to have decided to aggressively opposing health orders from the governor’s office is a good idea. Not only that, but they have been public and misleading about the science of COVID-19, generally contributing to the toxic spill of misinformation that sheriffs all over the country seem determined to make the pinnacle of their political careers. (Campaigning for 2022?)
In Riverside County, Sheriff Chad Bianco has aggressively attacked physicians on Twitter for their medical expertise on coronavirus, released a YouTube video where he declared political war on the people of California (while claiming that the science is “mixed” on mask-wearing), and now claims that a judge is holding him in contempt because of “political reasons.” Bianco also cast unnecessary aspersions on the coronavirus vaccine for no apparent reason.
In Orange County, Sheriff Don Barnes was ordered to release people housed in his jails in order to reduce the population by half to allow for social distancing and prevent deaths from COVID-19. Sheriff Barnes then went on a television tour fit for a right-wing martyr, bemoaning how unfair the decision was and blaming Governor Newsom.
And, in San Diego County, a group of medical professionals working in the jail wrote an op-ed excoriating Sheriff William Gore for shifting responsibility for jail medical care. The San Diego jails are incredibly dangerous with many deaths, both by suicide and neglectful medical care. Gore has been remarkably non-responsive to community input and the press.
Jessica Pishko @jesspish 
Hate it? Love it? Email me at jesspish at
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