Debate: The Santa Monica Democratic club hosted the debate for County Sheriff. Courtesy image

The incumbent LA County Sheriff and four Democratic challengers appeared at a debate sponsored by the Santa Monica Democratic Club on Wednesday evening

There is no love lost between LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the four Democratic Party challengers hoping to unseat him in the November election. That fact was evident in Wednesday evening’s virtual candidate debate hosted by the Santa Monica Democratic Club (SMDC) and co-sponsored by the Culver City Democratic Club.

Challengers for the position include former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna; LAX Police Chief and former LA County Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo; LA County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Eric Strong; and LASD Commander (and former Chief) Eli Vera.

All four blamed Villanueva’s policies and leadership style for issues ranging from discord with the LA County Board of Supervisors to the continued proliferation of deputy gangs.

Just days after Villanueva sent a cease-and-desist order demanding the LA County Supervisors stop using the phrase “deputy gangs” to refer to secretive cliques that have developed at sheriff’s stations, SMDC President Jon Katz asked the five candidates how they would propose to combat the problem.

“Deputy gangs have been a longstanding issue with the LA Sheriff’s Department,” Katz began.

He asked the candidates: “Do you view deputy gangs as a problem? And, if so, how do you intend to meaningfully address it?”

One by one, all four challengers railed against the issue.

Luna said that not only were deputy gangs a problem, but they were “absolutely unacceptable, with an exclamation point.” Luna offered two solutions: emphasizing mental health, and bringing in the Feds.

“We need to get back to the basics about talking about employee and deputy wellness, to deal with the mental aspects of the job, which are probably taking people that direction to begin with,” Luna said. “And then we need to bring in the FBI, Federal DOJ, State, DOJ, whoever it takes, because we’ve been talking about this way too long. That’s why I keep on telling everybody, you need an outsider to come in and fix this.”

Rhambo said that the department has for too long fostered a culture that allowed for such gangs to exist. He suggested to address the issue through recruitment, leadership and by having a zero tolerance policy.

In particular, Rhambo said training officers need to be vetted.

“Address it by … training — to make sure that supervisors understand and identify how these things begin, and making sure that if you’re seeking promotion or training officer opportunities, that you don’t get promoted and you you’re not allowed to train because that just perpetuates a certain culture,” Rhambo said. “And then also encouraging the FBI, the State Attorney General’s Office and other outside entities [to] just come in and take a look at those investigations, so that people don’t believe that … we’re policing ourselves. They can take a look at these investigations and conduct those investigations and I completely cooperate with those.”

For his part, Vera — who did not use the term “deputy gangs” — said he already had experience combating the issue in South LA.

“Going back for many years when I was Captain of South Los Angeles Station, through to the time I was the Chief of the Central Patrol Division, I’ve spoken out and tried to change the culture within the organization and in teaching our deputies why this practice needs to come to an end,” Vera said. “This practice has caused tremendous damage to the reputation the trust within the community. It has caused huge financial liability to the taxpayers, to the department, and it’s going to cause liability to those individual deputies here in the very near future.” Vera said it came down to policies, which should be “changed immediately,” in line with other police departments around LA that effectively prohibit cliques.

Strong spoke to his personal involvement investigating deputy gangs, calling himself “an outsider that’s on the inside.”

“I did one of the largest investigations in the Department,” Strong said, “and what it really boiled down to, on the inside, is that these deputies assaulted other deputies because of their affiliation with a certain floor. We don’t need any more reports. We don’t need any more panels to tell us what we already know.”

Strong also called into question the veracity of his opponents’ commitment to ending clique culture.

“I find it very interesting that some of the candidates here are speaking so profoundly about what they’re going to do about it. But I can tell you, in the 21 years I’ve worked for some of them, I never heard a message on the inside about prohibiting these deputy gangs,” Strong said. “I never heard any messaging about, ‘It has to stop’ and ‘we have to put an end to it.’ As a matter of fact, many of the people that were in that investigation were allowed to go scot free while lying because of the people in this room that were in leadership positions that could have held them accountable at that time. So,I think I’m the only one that’s really serious about this, and can truly say that I’ve never been a part of it.”

Villanueva’s response came dripping with sarcasm.

“Let’s start with a round of applause for the four candidates who gave you the most unadulterated BS I’ve ever heard. And this is shocking, really,” Villanueva said. “For one thing, every single person here that spoke has said they’re going to do this and do that about deputy gangs? They are lying.

“For one thing. I’m the one who wrote the policy — the only policy in the history of the department — that address[es] the potential misconduct associated with these subgroups,” he continued.

The Sheriff then spoke about AB 958, an Assembly Bill Villanueva said he sponsored, which went into state law after passing in 2021.

According to AB 958’s text, the law requires “law enforcement agencies to have a policy prohibiting law enforcement gangs and making participation, as specified, in a law enforcement gang grounds for termination,” as well as requiring “an agency to disclose an officer’s termination for involvement in a law enforcement gang to another law enforcement agency conducting a preemployment background investigation of that officer, as specified.”

Villanueva said cliques form in many types of departments, including with the LAPD, fire departments and in the military, but lawfully stepping in is more complicated that just firing a deputy.

“We have to protect the taxpayer and we have to deal in reality,” Villanueva said.

Villanueva also called into question the validity of Katz’s framing of the issue in his question about deputy gangs.

“John Katz, your opening salvo in that question, you had no evidence to support your statement. You said made it as a declaratory statement … show me the evidence,” Villanueva said. “And that’s why I demand of everybody: Show me the evidence. We will take action, but cannot be based on claims that get thrown out in court for lack of evidence.”

When asked about a proposed increase in Board of Supervisors’ oversight of the LASD, Villanueva and three of the four candidates said they opposed a move to make it possible for Supervisors to remove a sheriff through a four-fifths vote, with only Strong supporting the proposal. However, all four challengers remarked that the issue would not exist were it not for Villanueva’s contentious attitude toward the County’s governing body.

In response, Villanueva pointed out that former Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was recently indicted on corruption charges. With the exception of Supervisor Kathryn Barger — the only Republican member of the Board — Villanueva said all of the supervisors were unethical.

“If you have a majority that wants to defund, deliberately, the Sheriff’s Department and harm public safety, well, they crossed a line that should not ever be crossed,” Villanueva said. “So, when they want to do things ethically, you’ll find me working with them, shoulder to shoulder, but right now, they’re deliberately trying to defund and destroy the Sheriff’s Department.”

In a rapid-fire question round, the four challengers indicated they supported vaccine mandates for sheriff’s deputies; Villanueva said he did not. When it came to efforts to recall LA County District Attorney George Gascon, three challengers said they opposed the efforts. Vera said he supported the recall effort, as did Villanueva, who asked, “Can there be a hell yes?”

Following the debate, Katz said he was impressed the Sheriff agreed to attend the Zoom forum.

“I give Sheriff Villanueva credit for coming through into the lion’s den, so to speak,” Katz wrote in an email to the Daily Press. “Since we are a progressive club and, in fact, called on him to resign in 2020, it would have been easy for him to blow us off. But he came and gave a full throated defense of his term in office, which I appreciate even though I don’t support a lot of what he’s done.”

Katz said that the SMDC planned to make its endorsement in this race on April 27, along with all other races on the June ballot.

*An earlier version of this story stated Robert Luna was the current Long Beach Police Chief. Luna has retired; his final day was Dec. 31, 2021.