By Frank Stoltze and Emily Elena Dugdale
Originally published Nov 15, 2022
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has conceded defeat to challenger Robert Luna in the race to lead the country’s largest sheriff’s department.
In a statement on Twitter, Luna said he is “deeply honored and humbled that you have elected me as your next sheriff.”
He added: “[y]ou have entrusted me with a clear mandate to bring new leadership and accountability to the Sheriff’s Department. And that’s exactly what I will do.”
About Luna’s Plans
Luna, the former chief of the Long Beach Police Department, promises a “180-degree difference” from Villanueva that will include a new era of openness and cooperation with county bodies that oversee the Sheriff’s Department or its budget. Villanueva engaged in bitter political fights with the Board of Supervisors, the Civilian Oversight Commission, and the Inspector General.
Calling “public trust and legitimacy” the “cornerstone of law enforcement,” Luna told us last month that “I will be a sheriff who completely cooperates with oversight … I will comply with subpoenas. I will testify in front of the Civilian Oversight Commission. I will work with the Inspector General.”
While Villanueva argued deputy gangs were a problem “of perception more than reality” and that “the overwhelming majority [of secret deputy groups] are benign,” Luna says he will take a much harder line.
“The reports are clear that the L.A. Sheriff’s Department has a perpetual gang problem,” he wrote in LAist’s candidate questionnaire.
“I will not only get rid of gangs within the Sheriff’s Department, I will also change LASD’s culture to ensure that gangs do not resurface in the future,” he said.
In an Oct. 26 interview on our newsroom’s public affairs show, AirTalk, Luna said he plans to conduct “an absolute top to bottom review of all department operations” to see if he should maintain current policies or change them.
With regard to the overcrowded county jails, which continue to have serious problems in terms of hygiene and other issues, Luna acknowledged in the AirTalk interview that “it is a challenge, a problem. But let’s look at this as an opportunity.”
He said he will work to “find the best people” to run the jail, and to consult with “subject matter experts who are good at dealing with mental health care, at dealing with addiction.”
Luna spent 36 years at the Long Beach Police Department, rising to chief in 2014. He oversaw the department (which currently has about 800 officers and 1,200 total employees) for seven years before retiring a year ago to run for sheriff. Luna will now oversee a department with approximately 18,000 employees and a $3 billion budget.
Be ‘Relentless’ On Crime And Invest In Prevention
On crime, Luna wants the department to utilize “a data-driven approach, be relentless in investigations, and be surgical with interventions,” as he said on our candidate questionnaire. “In addition, law enforcement must coordinate with the DA’s Office to create a plan for habitual offenders, especially for individuals accused of gun violence,” he said.
Luna also promises a more collegial relationship with reformist L.A. District Attorney George Gascón, who has weathered two attempts to place a recall measure on the ballot and endured withering criticism from Villanueva, who called him the “woke DA.”
“Although I don’t agree with all of DA Gascon’s policies, I do not support the recall of any elected official unless they have committed a crime or violated the integrity of their office,” he told us in the questionnaire. “As Sheriff, I plan to work in good faith with any elected official that the people of Los Angeles elect.”
How Early Experiences With Police Shaped Luna
Born to a Sinaloan immigrant father and a Modesto-born mother with roots in Michoacán, Luna said “I dreamt of being a police officer from a very early age.
But he said his negative experiences growing up in an area patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department steered him towards wanting to reform law enforcement.
“I had a lot of experiences I never forgot,” he told us.
“As a youth, I was personally stopped by law enforcement and on multiple occasions, I was not treated respectfully,” he said in our questionnaire. “I understand the concern that many people, especially by people of color, have with law enforcement.”
Praise And Criticism In Long Beach
During his seven-year tenure at the top of LBPD, Luna brought in body-worn cameras and implemented an early-warning system to identify problem officers. He started an office of constitutional policing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. He told us he had reduced police shootings by department officers by 50% between 2015 and 2020.
Over the years, Luna won praise and awards from some Long Beach organizations, including the NAACP. He also drew ire from others; when he announced his candidacy for sheriff last December, he was met with protestors.
Under Luna, LBPD committed to partner with USC’s Law Enforcement Work Inquiry System (LEWIS) Registry, a database that documents police officer misconduct. As of June, LBPD had not released data to the project, according to a department spokesperson.
While he was LBPD chief, his department was scrutinized for conducting lewd conduct sting operations that targeted gay men, which a judge condemned in 2016. Luna maintains he did not know the operations were happening.
Issues With Traffic Stops
A Long Beach Post review of data found that in 2019, LBPD officers disproportionately stopped Black drivers compared with whites and Latinos. It also found police ordered or pulled Black people from their cars more than twice as frequently as white drivers, and were more likely to search Black drivers than whites or Latinos.
A separate analysis by the news site “For The” foundsimilar results for Black bicycle riders.
In June, a Long Beach city commission recommended a ban on some police surveillance technology, including facial recognition software, which came under fire from the ACLU and concerned community members while Luna was chief.
A 2018 investigation by the Long Beach Post found the Long Beach Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in L.A. County that doesn’t interview its officers after they’ve shot someone. “Instead of facing questioning by investigators, Long Beach officers write reports that higher-ups in the homicide division review and suggest areas where the officer needs to add details or clarifications,” the paper reported.
An expert on police practices called Long Beach’s approach “problematic,” saying it creates opportunities for inaccuracies “or glossed-up accounts of what happened,” according to the Post. The report found Long Beach’s practice also runs counter to the DA’s protocols, which say “all officers or deputies who witnessed the incident should be interviewed separately and recorded.”
Luna’s department issued a statement defending the policy, in use for more than two decades, as “the best way to get the most accurate and firsthand information about an incident.” It added: “[t]he fact that other agencies use different procedures does not mean our process is bad or their process is better. We should never confuse the ‘most common practice’ as being ‘the best practice.’” The statement noted that “[n]o court, at any level (Federal or State, Criminal or Civil) has ever called into question our reporting process.”
The George Floyd Protests
During the 2020 protests in downtown Long Beach over the murder of George Floyd, LPBD officers responded aggressively to demonstrators. One shot reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez with a foam projectile while he was on assignment for LAist and KPCC. The department concluded that the shooting was within policy.
When Luna announced his candidacy for sheriff last year, protestors including activists with Black Lives Matter Long Beachstood behind him and shouted “Shame,” holding up posters emblazoned with the names of police shooting victims.
“Don’t let Luna fail up,” one sign read as Luna took the mic.
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2022 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.