Robert Luna, a little-known retired police chief from Long Beach, can be the following sheriff of Los Angeles County after soundly beating the incumbent, Alex Villanueva, who leaves office within the wake of a single term marred by the upheaval and discord he sowed.
With Luna holding a commanding 20-percentage-point within the vote count lead and the variety of ballots yet to be tallied shrinking by the day, Villanueva conceded the race Tuesday.
“I need to wish the incoming sheriff well,” Villanueva said at the tip of a rambling concession speech. “The protection of the community depends upon him succeeding.”
Saying he was “deeply honored and humbled” voters had elected him, Luna said in a press release that his victory signaled “a transparent mandate to bring latest leadership and accountability to the Sheriff’s Department.”
“I look ahead to working with the talented and courageous sworn and skilled staff of the Sheriff’s Department who’re dedicated to keeping our communities secure,” he said.
Dislike for Villanueva and his antagonistic form of rule played out elsewhere on the ballot as well: Measure A, which rewrites the county charter to present the Board of Supervisors the ability to fireplace a sitting sheriff, looks more likely to pass overwhelmingly, with about 70% of voters approving it to date. Supervisors put the measure to voters after years spent battling with Villanueva.
The outcomes were was a powerful rebuke of Villanueva’s 4 chaotic years in office — a tenure during which he morphed from an upstart candidate buoyed by the support of progressive voters right into a conservative, combative lawman who clashed endlessly with elected officials and others who oversee him and the department.
Luna’s victory means one other turnover in leadership for the Sheriff’s Department, which can see its fourth sheriff since Lee Baca resigned eight years ago amid a federal corruption probe that ultimately sent him to prison.
Luna is predicted to be sworn in because the county’s thirty fourth sheriff in a ceremony next month. He inherits a big, unwieldy law enforcement agency — one among the nation’s biggest — that runs a network of jails and patrols swaths of the sprawling county with stations from Lancaster to Catalina Island.
It is a company that historically has operated within the shadow of the Los Angeles Police Department, but is equal each in size and the role it plays in public safety. Luna will take care of longstanding problems and the fallout from recent scandals that erupted during Villanueva’s watch.
After a long time of neglect, the county’s jails will present Luna with no shortage of problems, as they’ve his predecessors. Treatment for the hundreds of mentally unwell people housed within the facilities is woefully insufficient, while the facilities generally are badly outdated.
Controversial shootings and other misconduct proceed to be issues as well. The Board of Supervisors recently agreed to pay $47.6 million to settle several lawsuits alleging excessive force or negligence by sheriff’s deputies. The payouts included $8 million for the family of Andres Guardado, whose killing in 2020 by a deputy prompted large protests.
Perhaps Luna’s most immediate challenge can be moving the department beyond the turmoil brought on by Villanueva’s combative approach.
He might want to rebuild the department’s ties to public agencies across the county and town of Los Angeles that Villanueva systematically ruptured by attacking other elected officials whom he said were a part of an excessively liberal “weaponized political machine” that allowed homelessness and crime to flourish. At the highest of that list were the county supervisors, who control the sheriff’s budget and clashed fiercely with Villanueva, as well the Civilian Oversight Commission the supervisors appoint to look at over the Sheriff’s Department.
There are the criminal investigations the Sheriff’s Department opened into a few of Villanueva’s most ardent critics that led to widespread accusations that he was abusing the ability of the office to attack adversaries. California’s attorney general has taken over those investigations and is looking into the misconduct claims.
And lawsuits by top-ranking sheriff’s officials alleging Villanueva covered up an incident by which a deputy kneeled on the pinnacle of a jail inmate remain unresolved.
The oversight commission, meanwhile, is holding public hearings into ganglike groups of deputies which have operated within the department for a long time. Villanueva got here under fire for his handling of the issue, each downplaying its seriousness and claiming to have taken decisive steps to handle it. He has also rebuffed subpoenas from the commission to reply questions on the groups and other problems under oath.
Luna, who headed the Long Beach police for seven years before retiring last 12 months, campaigned because the level-headed alternative to Villanueva, promising to work collaboratively with the county officials and department watchdogs Villanueva selected to make into enemies.
But he has remained largely unknown outside Long Beach and, as an outsider to the Sheriff’s Department, he’ll face the challenge of winning over a rank and file that grew to understand Villanueva’s brash style. Through the pandemic, for instance, Villanueva refused to implement the county’s vaccine mandate — a move widely cheered by deputies.
Despite his relative obscurity to most L.A. County voters, Luna was long considered the front-runner within the race. Villanueva’s showing within the June primary — he received 31% of the vote — was considered a poor end in a race that historically has favored the incumbent. Luna finished second in the first, receiving 26% of the vote.
At Luna’s election night party last week, Gregory Sanders, a senior pastor of the Rock Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, waded through the gang of several hundred people. He said Luna could be a transparent upgrade.
“His heart is in the best place, to create an area where our community has faith within the sheriff,” he said.
Times staff author Libor Jany contributed to this report.