In LA County, the new sheriff in town–he’s only been in office 22 months–would surrender the office if some powerful politicians and political entities have anything to say about it. But Sheriff Alex Villanueva says he’s going nowhere and he’s probably right. As an elected official, the sheriff is in a powerful position to resist recent calls from County Supervisors and other officials asking him to resign. 

The battle between Villanueva and members of the Board of Supervisors and Sheriff’s Oversight Commission is bound to raise the issue of whether elected sheriffs is a good idea. But history and the issue of separation of powers is on the sheriff’s side. 

Villanueva won the sheriff’s job in the 2018 election in an upset, ousting his one-term predecessor, Jim McDonnell, thus becoming the first LA sheriff to topple an incumbent in a century. From the beginning of his tenure, he has been in a tussle with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors over issues of accountalibily and leadership. Villanueva has been criticized for undermining reforms for the department, making questionable hires of deputies, poor emergency performance during a massive county fire, for which the Supervisors removed him as head of emergency operations, poor leadership which resulted in unnecessary shootings by deputies, and ignoring a subpoena to appear before the Oversight Commission. 

The Oversight Commission was created in 2016 and granted subpoena powers by the Supervisors in 2020 with Villanueva’s actions considered a catalyst for the latter move. 

Villanueva claims the actions of the Board and the public relations offensive against him are political in nature, telling the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a very coordinated cabal of supervisors who have been trying to get me out of office even before I took office. It’s a proxy war, that’s all it is, and their surrogates are on the Oversight Commission.” 

Focusing on a political struggle puts the sheriff on solid grounds. Most county sheriffs in the United States are elected officials, unlike police chiefs. In that sense they are accountable to the people at election time and not to other political officers. Police chiefs, usually appointed by mayors or city councils, report directly to those authorities. 

The position of California county sheriffs is established in the state constitution. Article XI, Section 1b on Local Government declares that, “The Legislature shall provide for county powers, an elected county sheriff, an elected district attorney, an elected assessor, and an elected governing body in each county.” 

Note the order. Sheriff is the first office mentioned establishing the office’s prominence.

The role of sheriff has been around a lot longer than police chief, with police departments coming about in this country in the 19th century. The history of sheriffs goes back to England where the position of sheriff is the oldest secular office under the Crown. The sheriff served as the principal law enforcement officer in England’s counties. 

Since the movement to reform policing has picked up steam, the emphasis has been on city policing. However, recently there have been calls to also focus on sheriff’s departments. 

While Boards of Supervisors, like city councils, have the power of the purse strings to reduce sheriffs’ budgets, they do not have the same power over holding the office holder accountable as the councils do with the police chiefs.

Whether Villanueva’s actions in office mean he should not be the sheriff, the voters will have to decide. Standing his ground on the principle that as elected official who enjoys the benefit of separation of powers doctrine in county government, Villanueva will resist both efforts to remove him or bend to the calls to resign.

The voters can remove Villanueva in a recall election, which seems highly unlikely, or vote him out in 2022 if voters disagree with him when he says his actions were meant to preserve public safety.