Can Robert Luna solve L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s problems?

Robert Luna asked the many sheriff’s deputies a simple question: “What’s the first thing you would do if you were me?”

At first the deputies were silent and turned to the man who would soon lead them.

Eventually, a few got in touch and said they’d like him to come to their stations so they could meet him, Luna told me over a late lunch at Lola’s Mexican kitchen in Long Beach.

“They say, ‘Hey, a lot of domestic politics — they scared us about you,'” he continued, referring to the regime of his predecessor as sheriff, Alex Villanueva. “‘You know, [that] They will change our uniforms. They will have us all vaccinated. And if we don’t do that, we’ll be fired. A whole list of things.’”

The impromptu meeting on Nov. 20, days after Villanueva admitted defeat, came about when the sheriff-elect stopped at the West Hollywood train station and was looking for a parking space on his way to a vigil for victims of the Colorado Springs, Colo., shooting .

Luna knows he has to win over many of his new employees. He said the meeting reinforces his philosophy on what the scandal-plagued department needs to do to regain public confidence after four years of chaos under Villanueva.

“I believe in my heart that the majority of people in the LA area support law enforcement, but they want good law enforcement,” he said. “Because no one wants anyone in a position of power to appear to be abusing power.”

My previous column on Luna focused on how his upbringing as a working class Mexican in East Los Angeles influenced his approach. It’s a breath of fresh air for the bunker mentality that pervades law enforcement these days.

But one thing I kept coming back to during our two-hour conversation was whether Luna, who served as Long Beach Police Commissioner for seven years, can effectively handle the enormous task that lay before him.

“He’s going from a big city to a super county,” said Jim McDonnell, who served as LA County Sheriff from 2014-2018 and also preceded Luna in Long Beach. “They have the largest prison in America, the largest port, the largest community colleges, hospitals. Everything you deal with is the greatest of its kind.”

“It’s huge,” Luna told me towards the end of our conversation. “I’m not trying to downplay it as it’s not a big deal. There will be challenges. There have been challenges there for decades. But there are good people there. We’re starting to take responsibility for ourselves and I think good things are happening and we’re going to have a lot of wins.”

New LA County Sheriff Robert Luna in Long Beach

“I firmly believe that the majority of people in the LA area support law enforcement, but they want good law enforcement,” said Robert Luna, who will be sworn in as LA County Sheriff Saturday.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

I asked Luna to address three of the sheriff’s department’s biggest problems: An us-versus-them mentality that exacerbated Villanueva. A disastrous prison system. And proxy gangs.

On the first point, the 56-year-old described the reaction in the Long Beach Police Department when a gunman ambushed a group of police officers in Dallas in 2016, killing five and injuring nine.

“All cops [at the department’s West Patrol Station] taped around the TV and you could feel the tension in there,” he said. “They’re all saying, ‘Everybody wants to get us. They want to kill us. We’re going all out to war.’ And I thought, ‘time off’.”

Luna told them to calm down and get back to work with the understanding that the community they were sworn to was not the enemy.

“Wo, I know for a fact that there were other law enforcement leaders who said, ‘Oh no, let’s lock the hatches. Here’s an extra box of ammo. Get ready for war out there.” And yes, that’s where I come from. Again, it’s my personal [life] Growing up sets the tone. It’s not us versus her because I was the kid that ‘she’ was.”

I asked if that’s what his new department wanted to hear right now. He agreed it wasn’t.

“Sometimes, whether you’re in a military position, in a police position … and they’re putting everything on the line when they’re out there, mentally and physically, they want their boss, their sheriff like, ‘Hey, we want someone who’s going to be us support.’ And if it seems like you’re not, it’s like, ‘This guy isn’t with us. And they start looking at you differently.’

“I will tell [L.A. County sheriff’s deputies] what I did in Long Beach,” he continued. “If you try to do the right thing when something bad happens, I will support you.

“And if you don’t do something right,” he concluded, “then I will hold you accountable.”

The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union representing the department’s grass roots, Villanueva backed Luna.

In an interview Villanueva gave me earlier this year, he claimed that 80% of the people in his department are “far right.” Mandates like requiring employees to be vaccinated don’t work with “people who distrust the government” and believe in conspiracy theories, said Villanueva, who has been vocal against vaccination mandates.

I asked Luna, a former Republican who fought as a progressive campaign, if ideological differences will be an issue.

“When we talk about some of these individuals who are maybe on the far right, it’s like people have to go back to the center to do this job effectively,” he said. “Maybe I’m naive, but those are my expectations.”

Robert Luna helps serve Thanksgiving dinner at the LA Mission.

Robert Luna joins volunteers serving meals at the Los Angeles Mission the day before Thanksgiving. LA County’s new sheriff will take office on Monday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Speaking of accountability, what about LA County jails? The American Civil Liberties Union recently described them as “barbaric,” with some inmates chained to chairs or benches for days after years of federal oversight.

And when video leaked of a deputy kneeling on an inmate’s head, Villanueva first tried to cover up the incident, then publicly implied that my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian broke the law by reporting the story.

“We have to be constitutional,” Luna said. “We must show respect to the people in custody. … We have two consent decrees. From what I’ve read, federal monitors say things are going in the wrong direction.”

He offered the standard progressive line of treatment of prisons as a place where people are not only held but also allowed access to mental health, addiction, housing and health care programs.

“If you start reading about the population in our facilities, the illiteracy rate is off the charts — like, what the heck?” he said. “It’s not an LA County jail problem per se. This is a community issue, but it’s just telling you we have a problem. So what if I could find a way to use resources so we can start educating people while people are incarcerated and if they have learning disabilities then we have experts who can help us get there?

It was language that reminded me of former sheriff Lee Baca, who also championed the education of inmates and saw prisons as an opportunity to fix some of society’s ills. Instead, the abuses escalated to the point where the federal government began investigating the prisons, resulting in the criminal convictions of Baca, his deputy sheriff Paul Tanaka, and nearly two dozen other sheriff’s officers.

I switched to proxy gangs. Although a federal judge had previously criticized them in the 1990s, Villanueva alternately said the problem has been resolved, is minimal, or said calling such groups “gangs” is racist. Its ambiguity poisoned the Sheriff’s Department with virtually every arm of LA County government. He has defied subpoenas from the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to testify about the gangs.

“You have to accept the fact that they exist,” Luna said bluntly. “You can’t ignore that there is a problem. It’s very well documented. I’ve spoken to several employees who say this stuff exists.”

He said he will evaluate whether the situation warrants inviting the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate. And unlike the previous sheriff, he said he plans to be completely transparent.

“They might want to come in and say, ‘You know what, we have to do things our way.’ When it’s like that, I say to people, ‘What do you need? What records do you need? What do I have to show you?’ But that has to be documented and communicated to the public.”

Luna said that simply breaking up the gangs won’t solve the root problems that created them in the first place.

“I think a lot of the behavior that we hear about is untreated trauma,” he said. “If… we don’t approach it from a mental health care perspective and use the experts to do that, then we will [deputies] turn to alcohol, just turn to a lot of behaviors that we don’t want them to be involved in, which I think lead to some activity by this vicarious gang.

I returned to the idea that some critics inside and outside the department see Luna’s sensitive talk as soft and not what the LA County Sheriff’s Department needs to reform.

He stopped.

“For anyone who doubts my inner strength to tackle the tough issues I’ve had in my career,” he said, “I mean, I’ve worked SWAT. I’ve worked in gangs. I worked in the drug industry. I’ve been doing undercover stuff with the FBI, buying and selling coke by the kilo.

“My skills are unique and probably underestimated at times,” he added. “But at the end of the day, that might sound cheesy, but my faith in God, my faith in who I am, and honestly, my faith in good people will see me through.” [to] even those who aren’t and don’t have good intentions.”

Robert Luna, left, Alex Villanueva, right, at a sheriff's debate.

Then-candidate Robert Luna and then-sheriff Alex Villanueva gestured during a debate in September after each said their favorite TV show was “The Big Bang Theory.”

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

I decided to end with the most powerful question I could think of: Could voters really trust a sheriff whose favorite show is “The Big Bang Theory,” as he and Villanueva both revealed during their only debate?

Luna laughed. “I have an idiot in me, and I’m okay with that. It’s another side of me that people don’t see.”

Who is his favorite character?

“Sheldon,” he replied, referring to the eccentric, narcissistic genius played by Jim Parsons. “He is so unique and different. … Just the way he involves people and the way he tries to find ways to deal with people even though he doesn’t have that personality trait. The social skills aren’t there.”

Sheriff Sheldon? Let’s hope it’s just the good parts. Luna starts on Monday. Can Robert Luna solve L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s problems?

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