LOS ANGELES - Incumbent Sheriff Alex Villanueva and retired Long Beach police chief Robert Luna squared off in a public debate Wednesday night less than two months before the November runoff election to see who will become the next Sheriff of Los Angeles County, and the two wasted no time going after each other.
In response, Luna said, "working with people doesn't mean you're a puppet." Luna has been endorsed by every member of the board.
Luna criticized Villanueva's homelessness plan, saying that the Sheriff "took credit" from organizations that work to combat homelessness to serve his political agenda, honing in on two instances, on the Venice Boardwalk and on Olvera Street.
"The sheriff should not have been in Venice taking credit for that work." Villanueva however used those situations as examples of instances where he worked with Los Angeles city councilmembers to clean up the streets.
Going forward, Villanueva said increasing shelter capacity "tenfold" should be the number one priority for battling homelessness in LA County.
Wednesday's debate comes just one day after the California Attorney General's office took over a corruption investigation into County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Villanueva came out early saying that he'd recused himself from the investigation but faced criticism for still commenting on the investigation publicly.
"I strongly believe the Attorney General stripped the Sheriff of this investigation because the Sheriff had no business investigating this from the very beginning," Luna said. "You cannot investigate your political opponents or enemies… This is why the public trust has been eroded," he said, adding he'd handle the investigation "completely different."
Villanueva in response framed himself as someone who's vehemently against corruption, saying that he was bringing lights to what he called "illegal" actions by Kuehl when the warrant was served. On his opponent, Villanueva said Luna "doesn't want to touch corruption with a 10-foot poll."
When the conversation moved to reports of deputy gangs in LASD, Luna said the first step to eradicating gangs is "you have to admit that there's a problem." From there he said federal and state intervention was necessary. "We have to show the public that they can trust us, and right now, they don't."
When asked if he was doing enough to put a stop to deputy gangs, Villanueva he's been working to eradicate deputy gangs from his first day in office.
Overall, 15 lawsuits the department has called "frivolous" have been filed during Villanueva's tenure, claiming he and the department lack accountability. A lawsuit filed in August claimed Villanueva and his wife, LASD Sgt. Vivian Villanueva, run the department like "their own personal fiefdom and business."
When asked what steps should be taken to minimize lawsuits against LASD, and subsequent payments footed by the taxpayers, Luna said that the department needs to be held accountable and policies need to be audited. "We needs to stop this," Luna said.
In response, Villanueva seemed to accuse Luna of two separate cover-ups during his time with the Long Beach Police Department in the 1990s.
Both Villanueva and Luna said that the rise in violent crime in Los Angeles County is a top priority that needs to be solved. While neither candidate addressed how they'd accomplish that, Luna said that Villanueva consistently "blames" the Board of Supervisors and Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón for rising crime without taking responsibility.
Villanueva said that, "we need to work together, but we need a District Attorney who does his job."
The candidates were asked about potentially using unarmed units to respond to certain calls, and both seemed to support new approaches to policing.
"Policing in the 21st Century means you're being more strategic and just smarter in the way we approach problems," Luna said
Villanueva pointed to the ways the department under him is already utilizing unarmed personnel, saying that mental evaluation teams deputies and licensed clinicians "do an incredible job" de-escalating situations. "There are ways that we can improve it," Villanueva said, but said a lack of deputies makes that difficult.
Working with the District Attorney
Sheriff Alex Villanueva's relationship with District Attorney Gascón, with Villanueva backing the effort to recall the District Attorney earlier this year.
Villanueva criticized Gascón's approach to the job from the start, saying that he's all for working with the District Attorney, but he wants the relationship to be collaborative.
"When you're District Attorney and your first day in office you come down like Moses in the mountains with the tablets and say ‘this is my special orders, everyone shall follow’ that is not a collaborative model," Villanueva said, adding that Gascón's policies, specifically refusing to prosecute certain cases, is threatening the public safety. "There are areas where can do a lot of reform," Villanueva said of the criminal justice system, "but it has to be together."
Luna called the relationship between the Sheriff and the DA "critical." "The people of LA County voted for both of us and expect us to work together," Luna said. Luna said that no matter where the two stand on policy, their job is to work together. "We have an obligation to work with people even we don't like," Luna said.
The latest poll numbers from UC Berkeley and The Los Angeles Times have Luna slightly ahead, with 31% of voters supporting the retired Long Beach chief compared to Villanueva's 27%. That same poll shows what a partisan vote this may be, come November. Forty-six percent of voters who identified as "strongly liberal" back Luna, according to the data, with 54% of "strongly conservative" voters backing Villanueva. The general election is on Nov. 8