Wanted: A New Sheriff

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman      May 13, 2022

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Wanted: A New Sheriff
Photo by Rhambo for sheriff.com Cecil Rhambo rose to the rank of Assistant Chief before retiring in 2014. He then served in local government for five years before becoming Chief of Police for L.A. World Airports in 2019.
For unincorporated communities like Topanga, arguably no elected position is as important as the L.A. County Sheriff. As the top public safety official, the sheriff represents local law enforcement from patrols and investigations to apprehensions and custody operations, as well as traffic management and enforcement, and regional emergency coordination. Unfortunately, by any civilized standard, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva has been a complete disaster from the moment he was sworn into office in December 2018. To put it mildly, Villanueva was an unpromising candidate to begin with. He had retired the previous winter at the rank of lieutenant—the lowest senior officer below captains, area commanders, division chiefs, assistant sheriffs, the undersheriff and sheriff—after 32 undistinguished years of service. He seemingly came out of nowhere and knocked off incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell, a respected moderate who’d been elected only four years earlier after helping lead a reform effort to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, Sheriff Lee Baca. After hiding an inmate from FBI investigators probing allegations of jailhouse abuses, Baca was charged with obstruction of justice and went to federal prison for a criminal conspiracy that ensnared nearly a dozen subordinates who pled guilty or were convicted. In our deep-blue County, all it took to elect Villanueva was a Democratic party registration (although the sheriff, like other local offices, is officially non-partisan), a Spanish surname, a promise to go easy on immigration enforcement—and a raft of Democratic and labor endorsements and funding. No sooner was he sworn in than Villanueva commenced to settling his old political scores. He rehired more than than two dozen deputies who had previously been fired for cause including stalking, domestic violence, and excessive force. He soon stopped cooperating with his own department’s inspector general, disparaged and ignored subpoenas from the County’s watchdog Civilian Oversight Commission. Villanueva picked fights with the Board of Supervisors and flung a sexist insult at one of its female members, and routinely bullies and roughs up members of the press—recently even going as far as investigating a reporter over a leak that implicated Villanueva in trying to cover up the use of excessive force against an inmate. He acts more like a swaggering caudillo in a banana republic than an accountable elected official in a functioning democracy. A public opinion survey released last month by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs found Villanueva scored a 37% very or somewhat favorable rating, 33% unfavorable, with 30% either unfamiliar with him or having no opinion. He’s apparently so confident of cruising to re-election that he didn’t even bother to submit a candidate qualification statement for voters to consider when they cast their ballots in the June 7 federal, state, and local primary elections. And why wouldn’t he be? For the past century, serving as Los Angeles County Sheriff has been almost a dynastic privilege. Alluding to Mexico’s nominally pluralistic but functionally one-party system, a journalist friend of mine used to joke about the Sheriff’s Institutional Revolutionary Party. Here as there, the tradition was to serve as long as you wanted, and then designate your own handpicked successor. And so, with the passive acquiescence of the Board of Supervisors and the electorate, Sheriff William I. Traeger inherited the office from his predecessor John C. Cline in 1921, serving until Traeger himself also retired in office in 1932 and handed off his unfinished term to Eugene W. Biscailuz. He retired in 1958, and his chosen successor Peter J. Pitchess was elected and served until he, too, retired in office in 1982, handing off the rest of his unexpired term to his chosen successor Sherman Block. Block was so popular and determined to remain in office that he ran for re-election in 1998, endorsed by all five County Supervisors, even as he was undergoing dialysis several times a week and dying of kidney disease. He died less than a week before the general election, and still got almost 39% of the vote. Had the dead man won, it would have fallen to the Board of Supervisors to appoint a living successor. The incumbent literally had to die in office to break the chain of designated succession and free the public to elect Baca, an unsanctioned candidate “from outside the family.” As we have seen, that ultimately didn’t work out too well, which is why we’re on our third sheriff in eight years, and—I sincerely hope—will soon retire him and elect someone new. If there’s one thing that recent history has taught us, it’s to be humble in our judgments and modest in our expectations of sheriff candidates. With that in mind, reviewing the field, I’ll be voting for Cecil Rhambo to become our new sheriff. Rhambo joined the Sheriff’s Department in the early ‘80s and served for 33 years in a variety of positions and assignments, including patrol, specialized crime units, excessive-force investigations, emergency management, and employee union relations before retiring at the rank of Assistant Chief in 2014. He then spent five years in local government as assistant city manager in Carson and city manager in Compton before resuming his law enforcement career in 2019 as Chief of Police for LA World Airports. Rhambo’s earned a slew of endorsements from many individuals and organizations who had previously supported Villanueva, endorsements they now regret. A biracial adopted child raised in Compton and South Los Angeles, his life experience has earned him the confidence of political leadership in both the Black and Korean-American communities, and broad support among our region’s organized labor movement. More than most other offices, law enforcement elections are invariably a bit of a gamble. But after carefully thinking it over, I’m placing my bet with confidence on Cecil Rhambo for sheriff.
Joel Bellman
      May 13, 2022

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