New L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna speaking after being sworn in Saturday. Photo by Brian Feinzimer for LAist.

By Frank Stoltze/LAist

Originally published Dec 5, 2022

Robert Luna took office at noon Monday as Los Angeles County’s new sheriff, succeeding Alex Villanueva as the 34th person to lead the nation’s largest sheriff’s department. In a conversation with LAist over the weekend, he expressed confidence that the rank-and-file will accept him, even though he’s an outsider.

After a swearing-in ceremony Saturday, Luna acknowledged the magnitude of the challenge he faces heading an agency that is 10 times larger than the Long Beach Police Department, where he was chief.

“How do you eat a large elephant? One bite at a time,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Department operates one of the largest jail systems in the nation; patrols all unincorporated areas and 42 cities; and is responsible for law enforcement at all courthouses, public hospitals, community colleges, and parts of the Metro rail lines.

‘I Know I Have My Work Cut Out For Me’

Luna last month soundly defeated Villanueva, who was seeking a second term as sheriff. Villanueva’s term was filled with controversy. He clashed repeatedly and bitterly with the Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, and Inspector General. He opened criminal investigations into some of his critics and faced allegations of covering up misconduct.

The new sheriff said he believes the rank-and-file are ready for a “stabilizing” leader, even though the department is notoriously unfriendly to outsiders.

“I think people have experienced why we probably need change, and I am going to have a more receptive audience,” he said. “But in no way am I telling you it’s going to be easy.”

Added Luna: “I know I have my work cut out for me.”

The Sheriff’s Department is a more byzantine and insular organization than the LAPD, with its far-flung stations and responsibilities, said civil rights attorney and police reform advocate Connie Rice.

“If you understand paramilitary culture, they’re not going to accept an outsider because they are about control of what they have,” she said. “It’s fiefdoms. It’s very feudal.”

The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) endorsed Villanueva, whom it saw as the champion of deputies when he endorsed more lenient discipline guidelines than his predecessor, mocked many law enforcement reform proposals, and refused to force them to get vaccines despite a county mandate.

ALADS Takes ‘Wait-And-See’ Stance On Luna

“We’ve had very limited opportunity to really engage [Luna] thus far,” said Rich Pippin, ALADS vice president. “We are taking a wait-and-see approach, as he appears to be.”

In contrast to 2018, the union spent no money on Villanueva’s campaign. It has not said why, but it was widely believed during the campaign that the combative Villanueva’s reelection bid was a longshot.

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Pippin said the union’s top priority is hiring more deputies at what it sees as a grossly understaffed department, where some deputies are required to work mandatory overtime. “It’s tough on people,” he said.

Luna has described secretive and sometimes violent deputy gangs in the department as a “perpetual problem” and promised to change the culture “to ensure that gangs do not resurface in the future.”

The union has largely downplayed any problem with gangs.

“We hope that he won’t rely on what he’s heard from third parties — some of those third parties being part of anti-cop activist groups — that he’ll come in and assess things firsthand,” Pippin said.

The Civilian Oversight Commission is conducting a series of public hearings as part of an investigation into deputy gangs. Luna has pledged to work with the commission and the Inspector General, including complying with their subpoenas — something Villanueva often did not do.

Luna assumes control of a department that’s under investigation by the California Attorney General over allegations of a pattern of civil rights violations, including excessive use of force and racial profiling. A federal monitor watching the jails has said deputy violence against incarcerated people and poor health care remain persistent problems.

Why Some See A Need For ‘His Own Mafia’

One challenge for Luna will be finding people from within the organization to help him understand and run it, said Robert Bonner, a former federal judge who once ran the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Bonner, who sits on the oversight panel, said Villanueva was paranoid and vindictive about anyone who ever crossed him.

“Villanueva purged the organization of its best and brightest senior managers and leaders when he came in, and so it’s depleted,” Bonner told LAist.

Rice said Luna needs people who can “tell him where all of the bodies are buried,” but also people from outside the department to act as “his own mafia” — loyalists who are not tarnished by a troubled organization.

Luna has said he will do that, but so far has only named two insiders to help him. April Tardy, who oversaw a group of stations that included East L.A. and Compton as a Sheriff’s Chief, will serve as his interim undersheriff. She is the first woman and second Black person to serve in that position.

Tardy, a 28-year veteran, is one of a handful of department personnel who have cooperated with the Oversight Commission’s investigation into deputy gangs.

Luna promoted Cmdr. Jason Skeen, who most recently headed the personnel division, to the position of interim chief of staff.

“I want to give everybody an opportunity and let’s see what they got,” Luna said, adding that he is vetting people based on three principles: integrity, accountability and collaboration.

“Somebody may say they have those traits, but their background doesn’t lie,” he said.

Luna Feels ‘A Lot Of Positive Energy’

The last outsider to serve as sheriff was Jim McDonnell, a former LAPD assistant chief who also once ran the Long Beach PD. He had more experience when he started the job than Luna, and said understanding the Sheriff’s Department was daunting.

“One of the biggest challenges is certainly acclimating to the size of the organization and the complexity of the organization,” he said.

McDonnell served only one term — from 2014 to 2018. He lost his bid for a second term in part because the deputy’s union did not like his effort to impose tougher discipline guidelines and spent $1.5 million on electing Villanueva as his replacement.

Luna expressed a lot of optimism after his swearing in on Saturday.

“I feel a lot of positive energy in here and we are going to use that and go in the right direction,” he said.

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