I have been president of PPOA for over 10 years and have dealt with four different sheriffs. Each of them had strengths and weaknesses that helped or hurt the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. I respected all of them, each for different reasons, although sadly some will be remembered for their failures. But the past is the past. So let’s look toward the future and take a closer look at our current Sheriff, Alex Villanueva. It’s in everyone’s best interest for him to succeed, so we will treat him as we have every other Sheriff: provide him with our advice, hold him (and his management team) accountable to employees and hope he makes the right decisions.
Let me start with the good things he has done in just two short months. He has reversed a horrible and abusive practice of excessive discipline and use of Relieved of Duty (ROD) by the previous administration. We saw an immediate change in the treatment of the employees. I am not talking about allowing employees to “get away with” misconduct. I am talking about a just and fair process that doesn’t assume the employees are guilty or lying before an investigation. The new administration treats employees with far more respect, understanding and compassion, and it is truly a welcomed change.
Sheriff Villanueva got rid of the Constitutional Policing Advisors. PPOA had been complaining about the extraordinary access and power of the CPAs to then-Sheriff McDonnell and, to his credit, he reined them in a bit. But they still had far too much power and influence and injected themselves into areas that had nothing to do with “constitutional policing.” The CPAs did a huge disservice to the Department and to Sheriff McDonnell and irreparably damaged the lives of many hardworking, dedicated employees and their families.
Sheriff Villanueva changed the promotion process for captains of patrol stations. In the past, many executives abused their authority by promoting their friends or staff over more qualified individuals. I also received many complaints from city officials who were unhappy with their captains and had no input on the selection of the captain for their city. Sheriff Villanueva has instituted a new process that involves the cities and communities in selecting their captain. Although this process may have unforeseen problems (many of which you can imagine as you read this), it is at least an attempt to eliminate the cronyism and favoritism of the past and gives greater opportunity to far more lieutenants to openly compete for a captain position.
Sheriff Villanueva has surrounded himself with an outspoken team of executives. This is a departure from past administrations. But it goes beyond that. He actually listens to them … somewhat. I know of several instances where the Sheriff was heading down the wrong path (some of which you will read about later in this article). His subordinate executives advised him that he was going in the wrong direction — and he acquiesced and changed his position. I am impressed by his willingness to listen and change courses when appropriate, at least in some areas.
But not all is rosy for Sheriff Villanueva. He has made some significant miscues, as well. First, he drove out nearly every executive from the previous administration even before he took office. We all know there were some bad executives and some who did not deserve to hold the rank they held. But many good executives were driven out too, not because they weren’t performing well, but because they were associated with the former Sheriff, Jim McDonnell. For one who proclaimed his displeasure about the unfair treatment of employees, Villanueva certainly mistreated many of the executives who could have helped him run the largest sheriff’s department in the world.
In his first week as Sheriff, he also held a meeting with all lieutenants and above. He ordered them to remove their insignias in an apparent attempt to create a visual cue that they are all deputies at heart. I applaud the message he was sending and, for a minute, I thought he was showing good leadership. But then, he followed that with an order that they would not be permitted to wear the insignias until he said so and dressed them all down as unworthy of their rank. They were ordered to return to work without wearing their insignias. This was an obvious attempt to humiliate his management team (or the team he inherited) and to convey, “You are not worthy unless I, and only I, say you are worthy!” Egomaniac? Maybe. In the words of Doc Holliday in Tombstone, “Make no mistake, it’s not revenge he’s looking for. It’s a reckoning.” Sheriff Villanueva missed an opportunity to send a positive message to his management team. He spoke of humility, but then demonstrated the opposite.
Sheriff Villanueva also made some miscues with his Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the hiring back of individuals who the TRC believes were wrongfully terminated. He took a lot of criticism from the Civilian Oversight Commission, the Board of Supervisors and numerous media outlets for bringing one individual back prior to forming the TRC. I am not going to judge him on his decision to bring anyone back to work, but his timing was horrible. Hiring a single individual back before forming the TRC looked incredibly suspicious, especially since that person worked on his campaign. These are hard-learned lessons for this new Sheriff. But Villanueva has admitted he isn’t a politician. He will learn quickly that all public figures are politicians or they don’t last long as public figures. That’s not to say he has to make sacrifices. He simply needs to learn how and when to do things to demonstrate to the public and his employees that he is a good leader.
Although he’s off to a rocky start, I applaud Sheriff Villanueva for having the courage to fix some of the most egregious internal problems so quickly: discipline and promotions. I am hopeful that he will continue to surround himself with good, ethical leaders, heed their warnings, listen to their advice and lead by example. If he follows this formula, he could turn into a truly great Sheriff.