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Los Angeles County's Most Regrettable Sheriffs

Sheriff, Badge, Los Angeles County

Image by Los Angeles Almanac.


Since 1850, Los Angeles County has sworn in 28 men to serve as its sheriff (and, we hope, someday a woman). Some sheriffs were heroes. Some were regrettable. The Almanac here lists four who we believe behaved regrettably. By coincidence, three of these four are also among the six Los Angeles County sheriffs of Hispanic heritage. Of course, that actually means nothing. Also by coincidence, Los Angeles County's second Latino sheriff, Martin Aguirre, was celebrated as a hero for saving 19 people from dangerously churning flood waters in the Los Angeles River in 1886. He was also widely admired, after once being Sheriff himself, humbly serving as a deputy sheriff under - not one - but three of his former deputies, who themselves went on to become Sheriff. It is the behavior of these men – not their ethnic heritage – that matters.


Sheriff, Los Angeles County, Regrettable

Tomas Avila Sanchez

(Sheriff, 1860-1867)

Tomas Avila Sanchez served as the ninth Sheriff of Los Angeles County. During much of his term in office, the nation suffered through the American Civil War and the loss of more than 600,000 lives. Although California remained firmly in the Union during the war, pro-secession sentiment ran high among residents of Los Angeles County. Most county officials and leading citizens were secessionists, including Sanchez and his two senior deputies. In March 1861, one month before Confederate forces opened the war by firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, a California militia in El Monte, declared themselves to be pro-secession. The militia was led by Undersheriff Andrew King, with his boss, Sanchez, listed among the troops. Also included was fellow undersheriff, Alonzo Ridley, and a number of deputies.

What kept Sheriff Sanchez and fellow secessionists in check was the dominating presence of Federal troops in Los Angeles County. Those openly declaring to be secessionists were subject to arrest by federal authorities. They were offered the option of swearing an oath of allegiance to the United States or being charged with treason (and ultimately sent to Alcatraz Island). Sanchez, along with most of his pro-secessionist pals, opted to swear the oath of allegiance.

Listing Sheriff Sanchez here was not an easy call. Sanchez was a Southern California native who was a veteran of the fight against the American invasion of California, during the Mexican American War in 1846. He was well-respected by Los Angeles County residents – both historic Mexican Angelenos and newer white migrants. He was considered fearless against some of the most notorious criminals of his day. He was fiercely loyal to Los Angeles. However, this sentiment clearly did not extend to the nation as a whole. He first demonstrated secessionist tendencies by promoting the secession of Southern California from California. Although his pro-secession views were no secret, Sanchez was politically savvy enough to keep residents happy and federal authorities at arm’s length by being a vigorous crime-fighter. He played an important part in moving Los Angeles from its days as a lawless town to one that began enjoying relative peace and prosperity. Sanchez served his county well. Yet we have no reason to believe that his seditionist, pro-slavery views were subdued by anything other than the threat of Federal arrest and imprisonment. It can only be speculated how Sheriff Sanchez might have behaved had U.S. troops not been present in L.A. to kept watch (the very same troops he called upon for help when he could not control lynch mobs). The bottom line for us was that, however respectable Sanchez may have been as a law enforcement officer, he sympathized with and supported those who waged war against the United States of America in order to preserve the heinous institution of human slavery.

John C. Cline

(Sheriff, 1893-1894 & 1915-1921)

John Casper Cline served as the 20th and 25th Sheriff of Los Angeles County. During his first term in office, the young twenty-something Cline enjoyed the autonomy and opportunities of being a western sheriff in the late 1800s. He was funded to bulk up his force to twelve deputies (including two brothers) to cover the huge expanse of Los Angeles County. He found the job to be lucrative, because he could pocket some of the fines collected and all fees paid for transporting prisoners, a common practice at the time. He also found profit in distributing “special deputy” badges to anyone who asked, directing all to purchase the tin badges from a store owned by his family members. Cline only had two years to enjoy this venture, however, as, at the time, Los Angeles County sheriffs served only two-year terms. Cline ran for re-election, but, unable to muster sufficient political support, lost to challenger John Burr. The county’s political establishment had caught onto Cline's enrichment while in office. Nevertheless, county residents had also gotten used to being handed (or rather sold) “special deputy” badges by Cline, so they promptly besieged the new Sheriff-elect with the same request – even before he could be sworn into office. This compelled Burr to go into hiding, even failing to appear for his swearing-in ceremony. With no new sheriff to swear in, Cline insisted that he should remain in the office as sheriff. The Board of Supervisors, not wanting any more of Cline as sheriff, overruled him and declared the office vacant. They then appointed Burr to the job anyway.

This wasn't the last that Los Angeles County voters would see of Cline. By 1913, Los Angeles County had become a chartered county, giving it greater “home rule,” or greater local control over county government. William Hammel was Sheriff of Los Angeles County and, supported by the Board of Supervisors, was running for reelection. Cline, having been out of office for 18 years, ran against Hammel and, in a huge political upset, won the election. Cline was back as Sheriff of Los Angeles County.

By then, however, California sheriffs were prohibited from pocketing fines collected and fees for transporting prisoners, as Cline had so diligently done in his first term as sheriff. The Board of Supervisors nevertheless raised Cline’s salary to give him no excuse to tap into fees and fines. This was still not enough for Cline. He still saw his department as an opportunity to line his pockets. He fought the Board of Supervisors for control of revenue coming into his department and refused to voluntarily turn these funds over to the county treasury. He was then accused of embezzling funds that were meant to feed inmates in the county jail (to the amount equivalent to $21,000 to $42,000 per month in 2022 dollars). He was accused of fixing 600 speeding violation tickets for friends. He was accused of using county funds and a county vehicle for a personal trip. He also renewed his former practice of selling “special deputy” badges –about 9,300 badges in all. The county authorized only 700 actual deputy positions, so Cline’s motive for giving out badges was not only for profit, but also to create a political following. Despite all this, Cline easily won reelection for another term as sheriff. His name was the only one on the 1918 ballot.

By 1920, in Cline’s third term as sheriff, the Board of Supervisors had had enough of his corruption. They tried to rein him in with civil litigation and they won judgements against him, but it seemed to do little to compel him to change his behavior. As an elected official, Cline couldn’t be fired. So, the board brought charges against him of “misfeasance in office,” asking the court to remove him from office for misconduct. Cline argued that the charges were improperly brought against him and that the court had no jurisdiction. The court disagreed and, after several appeals and a trial, Cline was found guilty. In 1921, the court ordered that he be removed from office. William I. Traeger was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to become sheriff and complete Cline’s term of office.

Lee Baca

(Sheriff, 1998-2014)

Almost a century after the scandals of Sheriff Cline, Los Angeles County found itself again dealing with a sheriff who needed to be removed from office. Lee Baca served as the 30th Sheriff of Los Angeles County. In 2011, his deputies found an inmate in Los Angeles County jail in possession of a smuggled phone. The phone was linked to the FBI and the inmate was determined to be an informer for the agency, investigating jailhouse abuses and civil rights violations by deputies. The discovery apparently set off a flurry within the department’s chain-of-command. This led to the concealment of the inmate’s identity and location in the jail system for about a month, in an attempt to hide him from the FBI and keep him from testifying before a federal grand jury. As if this wasn’t bad enough, in a blatant and misguided attempt at intimidation, two sheriff’s sergeants visited one of the investigating FBI agents at her home and, claiming that she was a suspect in a felony complaint, threatened to arrest her.

Baca resigned in 2014. In the end, 11 Sheriff’s Department employees were convicted of various crimes in connection to the FBI’s original civil rights investigation and ten additional employees and a retired captain were convicted in connection with the department’s obstruction of justice conspiracy. These included Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, two lieutenants and the two sergeants that threatened the FBI agent.

Baca himself was indicted in 2016 on federal charges of obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators. At first, he denied to federal investigators that he had been made aware of any federal investigation. He blamed subordinates for keeping him in the dark. Witnesses, however, testified that Baca was indeed aware of an investigation and efforts to obstruct that investigation. Baca then tried to attribute his initial answers to the effects of early stage Alzheimer’s disease and failing memory (a defense that expert witnesses shot down). Baca also tried to explain that the inmate was concealed in order to protect him from other inmates. Baca offered a guilty plea to a charge of making false statements, in exchange for a six-month sentence. The court rejected the plea agreement as too lenient for the level of crimes committed by a senior law enforcement officer. The first jury to hear Baca’s case in 2016 ended in a deadlock, with 11 jurors voting for acquittal. The government retried him in 2017 and a second jury found him guilty.

Baca was sentenced to three years in federal prison. He began serving his sentence in February 2020, at the Federal Correctional Institute in La Tuna, Texas.

Alex Villanueva

(Sheriff, 2018-Present)

Alex Villanueva serves as the 33rd Sheriff of Los Angeles County. As we noted in our article, The Most Regrettable Mayors of Los Angeles, it is a tricky thing to judge the historical legacy of a living political figure, when memories of their tenure in office are still fresh. In the case of Sheriff Villanueva, he is still in office. His term is still unfinished and his story has yet to be vetted by historians. However, we know, first hand, of the hope that many had for this new sheriff - a new progressive sheriff who would be more accountable and transparent than sheriffs before him. He was celebrated for being the county’s first Spanish-speaking sheriff in 128 years and for finally breaking the iron grip that incumbent sheriffs long held on the office. Yet, we also know, first hand, of the growing disappointment by many in this sheriff that has since emerged. Hopes for this sheriff were high. Regret for this sheriff is now deep.

Right out the gate, the new Sheriff Villanueva ordered ranking officers to humiliatingly remove insignia of rank from their uniforms until he reviewed and approved their status (an unnecessary bully move against long-serving public servants - fire them, if you will, but don't play with them). He rehired deputies previously fired for misconduct and took measures to reinstate hundreds more. He dismissed the department's two advisors on constitutional policing who served as non-law enforcement advisors on dealing ethically and legally with use-of-force and misconduct issues (setting off alarms to those fighting abuse and lack of accountability in the Sheriff's Department). He refused to recognize the voter-approved Measure R, granting the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission (serving as watchdog over the Sheriff's Department) authority to issue subpoenas, then refused to recognize those subpoenas. He curtailed an alarming number of misconduct investigations of his deputies. He downplayed the problem of deputy cliques that are alleged to abuse both deputies and citizens. His handling of the scandal involving deputies who improperly took and circulated photographs of the victims at the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site is now the subject of a lawsuit by Bryant's widow, Vanessa Bryant. Further troubling were "criminal investigations," announced by the Sheriff's Department, targeting oversight officials and “perceived political adversaries” that never result in actual charges (seen as attempts at intimidation).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Villanueva seemed to forget that he wasn't in Florida. Rather than support key public health efforts to curtail the deadly impact of the virus, he declined to enforce mask orders and employee vaccine mandates, even justifying his position with debunked viewpoints, such as claiming that science doesn't support the efficacy of mask-wearing. Because he refused to enforce employee vaccine mandates in his department, the Board of Supervisors had to reassign enforcement authority to the county’s personnel director.

Even some of Villanueva's campaign supporters, such as the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley have publically rebuked him and called for his resignation. Los Angeles Magazine went so far as to refer to him as “the Donald Trump of L.A. Law Enforcement.” In October 2020, in a move reflecting its ongoing struggle and litigation with Villanueva, the department’s Civilian Oversight Commission unanimously voted to demand that he resign. They cited his pattern of obstruction of accountability and reform efforts and his failure to rid the department of deputy cliques. With the commission, in calling for Villanueva's resignation, are the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, at least one L.A. city councilmember, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party Central Committee, Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, Palos Verdes Democrats, Santa Monica Democratic Club, Valley Grassroots for Democracy, L.A. hotel workers union UNITE Here! Local 11, Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, ACLU of Southern California, Justice LA, CLUE, Check The Sheriff Coalition, National Lawyer's Guild-Los Angeles, Reform L.A. Jails, National Immigration Law Center and dozens of other labor unions and community groups.

In January 2021, the California Attorney General's office announced an investigation into "allegations of excessive force, retaliation, and other misconduct, as well as a number of recent reported incidents involving LASD management and personnel."

In April 2022, Villanuevea held a news conference in response to a leaked video of one of his deputies committing egregious abuses against a inmate in a courthouse in March 2021 and allegations that he (the Sheriff) tried to cover the incident up. Rather than address the incident or the allegations, Villanueva focused on the leak itself and detailed a criminal probe targeting those he accused of being behind it. Using large graphic portraits, he identified as targets, Eli Vera, an opponent running against him for sheriff; Max Huntsman, the Sheriff's Inspector General; and Alene Tchekmedyian, the Los Angeles Times reporter who broke the story. The intense backlash to this stunt, however - especially the brandishment of a criminal investigation against a journalist - forced Villanueva to quickly backpedal. He tried to claim that he never actually said that the reporter was being investigated, even though he, in fact, did. To add fuel to this fire, four senior Sheriff's commanders who worked under Villanueva have come forward to refute Villanueva's account of when he actually was informed of the incident.


AND THEN, A HEROIC SHERIFF...

James F. Burns, Sheriff, Los Angeles County
Incidently, the man who succeeded Sheriff Tomas Sanchez, noted above, was a former school teacher, Sheriff James F. Burns. In 1871, one of the darkest episodes in Los Angeles history erupted. A mob of 500 men attacked the Chinese quarter in the city and murdered at least 17 Chinese men and boys. It was one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. The death toll, however, would likely have been much higher had it not been for the actions of Sheriff Burns. Seeing that L.A. city officials seemed unwilling to stop the violent mob, Burns hastily deputized 25 men and managed to regain control and disperse the mob. He didn’t stop there, however. Refusing to give a pass on what had happened, Burns proceeded to identified 150 perpetrators of the mob violence and then systematically served them with arrest warrants.



Los Angeles, Mayors
Also see: The Most Regrettable Mayors of Los Angeles.