- LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has faced consistent controversy since he was elected in 2018.
- Perhaps the agency’s most high-profile scandal — the Vanessa Bryant trial — reached its conclusion last week.
- A public affairs expert told Insider it’s possible the verdict could spell trouble for Villanueva’s political future.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the top elected law enforcement officer at Los Angeles County’s embattled Sheriff’s Department, has weathered a storm of scandals since he took office in 2018.
Under his direction, the controversy-laden agency has faced allegations of deputy gangs; the fallout of an inmate brutality incident and subsequent cover-up; and increasing pressure from a civilian oversight commission.
The back-to-back drama at the LASD over the past four years has forced Villanueva into a fierce fight for his job: In two months’ time, he’ll face off against retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, as both men vie for the county’s vote in the upcoming November election.
But Villanueva’s path to reelection may have just become more difficult following the multi-million dollar verdict in Vanessa Bryant’s case against the county and a trial that likely did little to improve the public’s perception of the LASD — or its leader.
“If anything would break through, maybe it would be this, because of its connection to things that don’t have much to do with politics,” Raphael Sonenshein, head of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, told Insider of the high-profile trial.
In a statement to Insider, LASD Commander John Satterfield, who serves as chief of staff for Villanueva, defended the sheriff’s actions in the aftermath of the crash and trial, and said attacks on his response are politically motivated.
A $31 million admonishment of the LASD
After only four-and-a-half hours of deliberations, a jury on Wednesday awarded Kobe Bryant’s widow $16 million in damages for emotional distress after county first responders took and shared graphic photos of Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s remains at the site of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed nine people, including the basketball legend and his 13-year-old daughter.
Vanessa Bryant’s co-plaintiff, Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash, was awarded $15 million in damages — cementing a hefty payout for Los Angeles County and a marked rebuke of the agencies at the heart of the case.
The two plaintiffs sued the county and other individual defendants over allegations that LA sheriff’s deputies and LA County Fire Department captains took improper photos at the scene of the helicopter crash and then shared the gruesome pictures among their colleagues and in public places.
Bryant and Chester’s lawsuit targeted the county as a whole, but attorneys for the plaintiffs painted the LASD as the primary villain of the trial — an approach that ultimately won favor with jurors, who determined that the department, along with LACFD, violated Bryant and Chester’s constitutional rights.
The jury further singled out LASD, and not LACFD, in determining that the agency had a longstanding practice of taking and sharing graphic photos.
Throughout the trial, plaintiffs’ lawyers zeroed in on the extensive efforts LASD took to keep the photos a secret in the aftermath of the crash, including a department-wide deletion order that came from the very top of the agency — Villanueva, himself.
A spokesperson with Villanueva’s political campaign told Insider that she sheriff is “proud to have led the charge to legally delete all of the known pictures of the crash of that horrible day.”
“We hope and pray that all of the pictures are gone forever so we can remember our hero Kobe and his beautiful daughter with images of joy and love,” Jennifer Buonantony said in a statement. “It is unfortunate the County attorneys did not better defend our efforts more vigorously. After this incident, Sheriff Villanueva led an effort to ban such taking of pictures in the future. We wish the Bryant family the best.”
Satterfield with the LASD offered similar sentiments, commending Villanueva’s “swift decision making,” and crediting the sheriff’s deletion order with the fact that none of the photos have “had the opportunity to see the light of day and escape containment,” which he said is “proof Sheriff Villanueva’s leadership worked.”
A tech expert hired by Bryant’s lawyers during the trial, however, also told the courtroom that a September 2021 analysis found that deputies “violated fundamental forensic policies” when they deleted the crash site photos. Nine of eleven phones turned in by LASD staff for the analysis were new since the January 2020 crash, and another was reset to factory settings, rendering any attempt to use metadata to track the spread of the photos impossible.
“It’s cost the county $30 million because of the destruction of evidence in a federal investigation,” said Inspector Max Huntsman, who leads the watchdog organization charged with overseeing the sheriff’s department. “That’s a self-inflicted wound that was totally uncalled for and outrageous.”
During the trial, the county denied deleting evidence, referring to the photos as “scene” or “site photography,” and insisting that many of the photos were turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board prior to deletion.
Satterfield further emphasized the county’s defense in a statement to Insider, saying there was no “evidence” to destroy, because the crash scene was an accident site and not a crime scene.
But whether or not Bryant’s trial ultimately deals a death blow to Villanueva’s political career remains to be seen.
“I don’t know what impact the verdict will have, but the sheriff’s conduct has been reprehensible and I think that will have a very strong impact on public perception,” Huntsman said.
Compounding crises at the agency
Villanueva has been dealing with controversy and criticism for nearly his entire term.
“I think the 2022 race could be understood more as a slow-moving four-year election,” Sonenshein told Insider.
The Los Angeles Times in 2018 first reported the existence of “deputy gangs” operating within the department, though the secretive cliques have reportedly been an agency issue for decades. Subsequent revelations about the number of subgroups have kept the department embroiled in controversy.
Then, earlier this year, the agency was once again on the defensive, after sheriff officials tried to cover up a 2021 incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for multiple minutes. The cop in question was also involved in the Kobe Bryant incident, accused of taking and sharing photos of the crash site.
Throughout it all, Villanueva has defended his deputies and himself with fervor, going after the reporters and government officials tasked with overseeing the troubled department. Villanueva threatened criminal action against an LA Times journalist and launched an investigation into Huntsman, who has pushed back against the sheriff’s stonewalling, over an alleged data breach.
Satterfield, meanwhile, accused Huntsman of demonstrating a “very unhealthy and bizarre obsession towards Sheriff Villanueva.”
A Los Angeles icon
But Vanessa Bryant’s plight for justice could be just the thing to break through with voters.
Where the department’s previous controversies were technical and internal, the tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s death is simple – and for Angelenos, deeply personal.
“LA is not a political town, but it’s very much a cultural town and a sports town, and the Lakers and Kobe Bryant are icons,” Sonenshein said.
The highly-publicized case involved a famous LA family in the Bryants and a famous LA institution in the Lakers — both of which, Sonenshein posited, are more familiar to the average voter than the intricacies of county government.
“It sort of breaks through a little bit, that kind of invisible wall between the voters and the sheriff’s office,” he added.
Another important component in the trial’s possible influence is the rarity that was Villanueva’s testimony. The sheriff has spent years dodging the civilian oversight committee’s efforts to make him sit for hearings and answer for previous scandals. But in a civil trial, Villanueva had no choice but to appear and defend himself and his deputies.
That the high-profile trial ended with a multi-million knock against the county is also hard to ignore.
“Sometimes there’s an electric current that can occur that crosses the boundaries between the kind of distant world of politics and government and things that people think and talk about all the time,” Sonenshein said.
The state of the race
If Villanueva is ultimately unseated come November, Huntsman posited that the signs will have predated Vanessa Bryant’s win.
“I think a big, high-profile verdict has a negative impact upon the level of trust for the sheriff’s department as well as the reputation of the sheriff himself,” he said. “But this is something we’ve been going through for three to four years with this sheriff.”
Recent polling conducted by UC Berkeley and the Los Angeles Times suggests that Luna currently has a slight edge over Villanueva in the tight race. According to the August poll, which was conducted before the Bryant verdict came down, 31% of LA County voters support Luna while 27% support Villanueva. The remaining 40% are still undecided.
Villanueva and Luna emerged from a crowded June primary race in which the incumbent sheriff just narrowly came out ahead, forcing the two into a competitive runoff. It’s a similar position to which Villanueva found himself just four years ago when he became the first candidate in half a century to unseat an incumbent sheriff at the department.
“In the primary, I would say that the voting percentages indicated that the public has been paying attention and is aware of what the sheriff has done,” Huntsman said. “Recent polls suggest the public is aware of what he’s done. But how to vote or what will come of an election, that’s not my business.”
Satterfield responded to Huntsman’s comments by suggesting the inspector general is an “attack dog” aiming to cause “as much political harm to Sheriff Villanueva as he can, prior to the November 2022 general election.”
A November reckoning
Whether or not the voting public cares about Villanueva’s past tactics or troubles remains unclear, Sonenshein said.
“So many things have happened with Villanueva in these last four years that it’s kind of like an overload,” Sonenshein said. “There’s a certain kind of stability in the instability in this way that sometimes it’s hard to know how much of it gets through to the voters.”
Satterfield pushed back against Sonenshein’s evaluation of Villanueva’s tenure, saying he has overcome more “leadership challenges” than previous sheriffs.
The entirety of Los Angeles County gets to vote for sheriff, but the agency only patrols about 60% of the county, Sonenshein said, operating in the county’s unincorporated territory outside of LA city proper. But it’s in the city itself where the most attentive political world exists, Sonenshein said.
“Put another way, the average LA city voter gets to vote for the sheriff, but they don’t get to watch the sheriff all the time,” he added.
Villanueva, meanwhile, is a natural campaigner, Sonenshein said. The sheriff has often taken the approach that any publicity is good publicity, according to the professor, which can be an effective strategy in a local law enforcement race.
“For a lot of voters, they’ll go to the polls and they’ll do what a lot of voters do in races that haven’t been as closely covered,” Sonenshein said. “They’ll say ‘oh, I’ve seen this guy’s name, I saw him on TV and he’s the sheriff. And it says, ‘sheriff.'”