In the latest episode of The Layover With LAAPOA video podcast, LAAPOA President Marshall McClain sits down with Sheriff Alex Villanueva to chat about the sheriff’s rise to becoming Los Angeles County’s top cop, what he’d like his legacy to be and much more.
Here are a few highlights from the episode:
At just 9 years old, Villanueva had traveled and lived in several places throughout his childhood. Born in Chicago to a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-American mother, Villanueva was an infant when his family moved to Rochester, New York. At age 8, his family relocated to Queens, New York, for a year before settling in Puerto Rico, where he lived for over a decade. “There’s not a whole lot of Polish Puerto Ricans, so I’m one of the few,” he shares. When Villanueva wasn’t in school, he was often helping his parents run their print shop. “When the work was there, everyone had to chip in,” Villanueva says. “When I was a little kid, we were there collating and going through the stacks putting the books together. It was a lot of work and also a lot of economic hardships.”
A Perfect Fit
Villanueva was a college student in Puerto Rico when President Ronald Reagan slashed financial aid. This loss of financial support led Villanueva to join the military. “I joined the Air Force and wound up at the Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino,” he says. “I then joined the Air Guard and went back to school, enrolling at Cal Poly Pomona.” In the military, Villanueva wanted to serve in the public sector but kept getting denied. He soon realized he could continue public service if he turned toward a career in law enforcement. Villanueva says the jump to law enforcement was a natural one. At the time, L.A. County was having a hiring push, and Villanueva still remembers the recruitment billboards that read, “Old jobs are a crime. Fight crime and become an L.A. deputy sheriff.” The rest, as they say, is history.
A Leader Is Born
“Sometimes the right thing isn’t always the most popular thing,” Villanueva says. Just two years on the job, Villanueva was working the jails when he realized changes needed to be made. “In those days, inmates could smoke, and it was the most awful environment,” he says. “People were going down with bronchitis left and right. It was so bad in the morning that inside the jails, you couldn’t see the people 30 or 40 yards away because of all the smoke.” Villanueva started a petition and got over 300 signatures from deputies to ban smoking in jails. “I did my homework and did a survey of inmates, who were actually in favor of the ban,” he says. The sergeant, lieutenant and captain all liked the idea, but the commander thought otherwise. “He told me, ‘Well, son, you’ve done a fine job here, but maybe in five or 10 years this might be appropriate.’” Undeterred, Villanueva countered, saying, “The problem is now, and the threat is now — it’s a health hazard,” he remembers. “The commander got beet red, and I remember the veins popping out of his neck, but three weeks later, we were with Sheriff Sherman Block signing paperwork to begin the first trial of banning smoking in the jails. It was my first experience confronting power with some truth.”
Breaking Through the Ceiling
Throughout his 10-year military career, Villanueva had little trouble rising through the ranks. “I was promoted six times, and there was no ceiling on what I could do,” he remembers. However, the opposite was true for Villanueva when he first joined the Sheriff’s Department. “It was a very hard ceiling — it wasn’t even glass; it was concrete,” he says. “I was told that as a Latino I should be happy if I got to the rank of sergeant or lieutenant and to be thankful and keep my mouth shut.” When he became a sergeant, Villanueva recalls speaking with the undersheriff at the time about his desire for the Department to embrace equal opportunity. “I told the undersheriff that I should be able to aspire to have his job,” Villanueva says. “When I told him this, I thought he was going to fall over and have a heart attack. Apparently, I sold myself short because I ended up one rank higher.”
Equal Opportunity for All
As sheriff, Villanueva has strived to ensure that the next generation of officers, no matter their race or gender, have an equal opportunity to move up the ranks. “I want to destroy all the barriers toward advancement and see women and people of color not just excel, but excel because we are giving them the experience and opportunity to succeed,” he says. “Six of my 12 division chiefs are women, which is more female division chiefs than the entire history of the Department prior to my arrival.”
A Legacy to Be Remembered
When asked what he’d like his legacy to be, Villanueva points to the Department’s handling of last year’s George Floyd protests as a proud achievement he hopes is long remembered. “In 1992, I was a young deputy and saw the disaster of the Rodney King riots,” he says. “Fast forward to 2020, we learned a lot about what not to do, and we had a historic do-over. We probably had 50 to 100 times more protesters on the street in comparison to ’92, but there wasn’t a single death. In 1992, 58 people were killed. We learned early on in real time that officers from LAPD, Santa Monica P.D., Long Beach P.D. and others were handcuffed by the political establishment. On top of that, half the people who were doing the rioting were out-of-staters, so I said there would be no city limits anywhere, and if it’s in L.A. County, go get ’em. That’s exactly what we did, and the whole thing ended.”