Los Angeles Sheriff's Department

Embattled L.A. County Sheriff Villanueva Will Have To Fight To Stay in Office

He’s been dismissive of fears of gang activity in the LASD and on the attack against critics and investigators. Voters have noticed.


Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva will be facing a run-off election come November, having failed to get the support of 50 percent of the voters required to remain in office.

Not only has the sheriff failed to avoid a fall challenge, he's actually doing pretty poorly, though so far only about a third of the votes have been counted. He's in the lead, but he has just 34 percent of the vote in a pool of nine candidates. By comparison, the top candidate to replace Eric Garcetti as mayor of Los Angeles, Rick Caruso, has 42 percent of the vote in a field of 12 candidates.

If you don't think these numbers are bad for Villanueva, he's currently getting about the same percentage of the vote as he got when he ran against incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell in the 2018 primary. Except there, Villanueva ended up in second place, behind McDonnell's 47.6 percent of the vote. Villanueva then managed to pull ahead of McDonnell in the November run-off to unseat him. These 2022 results so far are very low numbers for an incumbent sheriff.

Just behind Villanueva is challenger Robert Luna, a retired Long Beach police chief, who has 24 percent of the vote. And just after Luna is Eric Strong, an LASD lieutenant, with 12.5 percent of the vote.

If those figures stay about where they are, they don't bode well for Villanueva, but be wary about drawing any wide cultural conclusions given the particulars of Villanueva's increasingly combative and unusual first term.

Villanueva campaigned on a promise to reform the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department to eliminate corruption, but what has happened since has most certainly not been as first advertised to voters. Trouble reared its head almost immediately after he took office as he reinstated a deputy connected to Villanueva who had been fired in 2016 over allegations he stalked and attacked an ex-girlfriend and whose firing had been upheld by an appeals board. The deputy has since lost his job again after a judge ruled Villanueva exceeded his authority.

Villanueva has also shown himself to be a foe of greater transparency, resisting a relatively new law that finally opened some police misconduct records to public review, and he has gone on the attack against anybody, whether it's other Los Angeles County officials or journalists, attempting to shine a light on misconduct at the LASD.

If Villanueva loses his job come November, it won't simply be the result of this feuding with other politicians and yelling at journalists, but for his attempts to downplay and even outright dismiss the existence of L.A. County's "deputy gang" problems. The LASD has had a long-standing decades-old problem of deputies creating their own gangs, with names and tattoos, who engage in violent and criminal behavior and reportedly exert control over various departments within the LASD.

Deputy gangs have been a known entity in L.A. County since the 1970s, and so Villanueva obviously isn't responsible for their existence. However, he has made the decision as sheriff to publicly deny that there's a problem and even sent a "cease and desist" letter to county supervisors demanding that they stop using the term "deputy gangs." In an interview with The New Yorker published in May, Villanueva insisted that these secretive "cliques" are not gangs at all.

It's a strange sort of defiance of a serious criminal problem and potential corruption coming from a man who sits for interviews with Tucker Carlson, complains about the "woke left," and arranges photo ops of cleaning up homeless encampments, even crossing boundaries into the City of Los Angeles to do so. The "deputy gang" issue may only be recently getting significant national attention, but it's not like any of this is news to L.A. County residents, who voted for Villanueva the first time because he promised to clean up the department.

If these vote numbers hold up, Villanueva can only win if people who voted for alternatives in Tuesday's election either come back to him in November or simply don't vote for sheriff at all. If all those voters stick with the runner-up (be it Luna or Strong), he's done.

A potential defeat for Villanueva probably shouldn't be viewed too deeply through the lens of the larger criminal justice debate, even though the sheriff clearly would rather have that particular fight. This is a very particular Los Angeles story of a massive law enforcement agency with serious corruption problems run by a man who has decided that the correct way to respond to it is to go on the attack against anybody attempting to investigate it.