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New LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva fought for this political win for years

Maya Lau and Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Villanueva promised during the campaign to rid the department of people who he said didn't deserve their titles, often noting he had been unfairly blocked from advancement despite passing the lieutenant's test four times.

He has acknowledged that he was suspended for five days and again for 10 days in the early 2000s for allegedly failing to timely report derogatory statements made by another employee. He denied the claims, calling them blowback for his assertions that the department discriminated against Latino deputies.

He said the discipline was erased from his record in a settlement he reached after suing the department. In 2012, Villanueva and the department were sued by a black custody assistant who said Villanueva referred to him as a "knuckle dragger," which the jailer interpreted as a racial slur.

Villanueva has denied making the comment and said there was no finding of wrongdoing. The county settled with the custody assistant, Dwayne Perry, for $10,000. An attorney who represented him confirmed there was no misconduct finding but declined to comment further.

In his effort to rebuild the department, Villanueva named to his executive team retired Cmdr. Bob Olmsted, an early whistleblower about brutality in the jails. He was one of several officials who testified against Baca and former undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who were convicted in a sweeping jail abuse scandal several years ago.

Villanueva's naming of department insiders to the highest executive positions have caused some to wonder whether the department would be better served by bright minds from the outside.

Michael Gennaco, who headed the Office of Independent Review, which monitored the Sheriff's Department, for 13 years, said that while some personnel changes risk losing experience, "I always think an organization can benefit at the higher levels if people are from the outside, who did not grow up in the organization."

Villanueva, who was born in Chicago to a Puerto Rican father and a Polish American mother, moved several times as a child, eventually landing at age 9 in Puerto Rico, where he spent his adolescence.

After serving a year in the U.S. Air Force, Villanueva joined the Air National Guard and the California Army National Guard before becoming a deputy with the Sheriff's Department. Two years into the job, he said, he walked into a commander's office with a proposal to ban smoking in the jails. The commander initially balked, Villanueva said, but the ban went into effect.

In 1997, when Villanueva was studying for his master's degree in public administration at Cal State Northridge, his thesis offered a fierce critique of how the department handled promotions -- the process, Villanueva argued, discriminated against Latino deputies.

By the mid-2000s, the issue had grown increasingly personal and Villanueva filed a racial discrimination lawsuit after learning that an open sergeant position at the Lennox station he'd been told was unavailable had gone to a white man.

Villanueva conducted a diversity study and determined that Latino deputies were underrepresented. He took his findings to a commander who encouraged Villanueva to stop pushing "the brown thing," according to the lawsuit. He eventually settled the matter.

During the run-up to the sheriff's election, many observers weren't convinced of Villanueva's potential. Javier Gonzalez, the campaign strategist for Citizens PAC, a group that channeled funds from labor groups to promote Villanueva, said the candidate aimed his message too much at deputies, so much so that he sounded as if he was running to be president of the deputies' union.

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But Gonzalez said he liked Villanueva's "sort of nerdy, quirky, cute brilliance," finding he had a thoughtful side and was more effective when he shared personal stories touching on broader issues such as community policing.

Gonzalez advised Villanueva on how to adapt his message to connect with a wider swath of voters.

Villanueva is taking over an agency that has spent years shedding a reputation as a magnet for cowboy cops, where brutality against jail inmates was endemic and racial profiling so rampant that federal authorities had to intervene.

The department implemented significant reforms in recent years, but new concerns have emerged that deputies may be profiling Latino motorists and forming tattooed internal gangs. Several deputies have recently been arrested for serious crimes such as rape, robbery and drug trafficking.

And Villanueva is starting in his position under heightened scrutiny. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has said it is reviewing a complaint about potential straw donors to Villanueva's campaign.

Straw donors are people who are publicly listed as giving money to a campaign but are actually being reimbursed by another person who is trying to conceal his or her name as the source of the money -- an arrangement barred by state campaign finance laws.

Villanueva has said he believes all the donations to his campaign were legal and that he is not considering refunding them.

At his swearing-in ceremony Monday, Villanueva recounted how little money his campaign raised compared to McDonnell, and how he and his team were dismissed by the establishment. But he pulled through, he said, with the help of "a few brave souls."

"I was not supposed to be here," he said.

(c)2018 Los Angeles Times

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