Worries over an uptick in burglaries and a Chilean robbery ring brought out 200 residents to a town hall meeting in Agoura Hills last Tuesday. Los Angeles County’s new sheriff Alex Villanueva was warmly greeted by residents from Westlake Village, Agoura, Calabasas, Hidden Hills and Malibu, including new Council Members Mikke Pierson and Karen Farrer. Many expressed gratitude to Villanueva for his unprecedented trip to the far western reaches of the county to hear community concerns.
The sheriff, elected late in 2018, ran on a platform of reforming the department, but quickly received criticism for rehiring two earlier discharged deputies—one accused of using unreasonable force, the other for domestic violence and making false statements. Without directly addressing the controversy, Villanueva remarked, “Notwithstanding what you may have heard from the board of supervisors, we actually take everything seriously with regards to crime. If crimes are committed by employees of our department, we investigate, establish if a crime occurred or not and we’re going to deal with it.”
With a goal of cleaning house after his election, Villanueva claimed he’s terminated 19 employees this year—six on DUI-related grounds, two for domestic violence, one for soliciting a prostitute and the rest for making false statements.
“The difference between my administration and in the past is we’re making evidence-based decisions,” Villanueva said, adding it would be fiscally and morally irresponsible to fire employees without evidence and could be costly in resulting lawsuits; he did say employees must be held accountable. “We’re going to make decisions based on evidence—based on facts—nothing else. Then, when we have to terminate someone for a lawful reason, we can sustain it in court.”
The sheriff emphasized his desire to boost the force with new hires and boost morale. In a jab at the previous administration, he criticized, “They weren’t recruiting.” Villanueva received applause when promising to hire hundreds more officers.
The sheriff then answered questions from the audience that were prescreened by his handlers. When asked how the department stays ahead of technology used by criminals, he replied, “For every technology there’s somebody working to better it. It’s a never-ending process.” He then recommended the low-tech device of a bolt latch for those worried about covert garage door openers. The department does have a fraud and cybercrimes unit that is “constantly on the prowl for the latest technologies and emerging trends to defeat.”
Residents told of a rash of burglaries in Agoura—some possibly committed by a recently busted Chilean operation. They pleaded for more patrol officers. That’s when Villanueva acknowledged the Malibu Volunteers on Patrol and urged others to join them.
The new sheriff addressed the many retirees in the crowd.
“You’re communities of affluence, which means the bad guys know,” he explained. “You attract a criminal element that’s going to try to separate you from your possessions. If you’re elderly, they have means to exploit that—even caregivers, some who can’t be trusted. You need to vet them.” Speaking of scams often used against seniors he stressed, “No public entity does business over the phone. If you get a phone call from the sheriff’s or IRS, you can politely tell them to go to wherever you want to send them.”
While addressing homelessness, Villanueva acknowledged, “It’s driving petty theft and other quality of life issues.”
Villanueva explained a new philosophy.
“In the past, we measured our success with how many people we took to jail,” he said. “Now, we’re seeing the bigger picture.” Advocating job training for nonviolent felons, he said they could be trained for construction work or in other fields.
Asked about immigration, Villanueva said maintaining an association with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) could leave many crimes unreported—so sheriff’s officials were sticking to enforcement of state and local laws.
“We have roughly one million undocumented residents in Los Angeles County. When we’re associated with immigration enforcement, those one million are not going to report being victims of crimes including violent crimes like rape, kidnapping, domestic violence and assault with a deadly weapon,” he said. “They fear if reported they’ll be deported. Our job is to enforce state and local law, not federal immigration law.” Villanueva spoke of a drop in reporting crime from immigrant communities since President Trump took office. He surmised even a one percent drop in reporting could equate to 350 unreported rapes. “How safe do you feel knowing there’s 350 rapists out there?” he asked. However, Villanueva said the department is transferring convicted felons to ICE.
He vowed to make his department one that attracts people to join its ranks: “When people are happy to work, they’ll hop there on one leg.”