Los Angeles Times

More friction with the sheriff

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Maybe the phone call to Los Angeles County Counsel Mary Wickham the day before Easter, purporting to be from a Los Angeles County sheriff ’s sergeant and threatenin­g her with arrest for something to do with a grand jury subpoena supposedly issued in 2006, was just another phone scam. Maybe it was a coincidenc­e that the name used by the caller belongs to a real sheriff’s sergeant who also serves on the board of one of the department’s employee unions, and maybe it was just happenstan­ce that Sheriff Alex Villanueva has ramped up tensions with Wickham by publicly calling her out for her role in his fight with the Board of Supervisor­s over his reinstatem­ents of deputies who were previously fired for cause.

But Wickham and the board were so concerned that the call was designed to intimidate her that they called an extraordin­ary closed emergency meeting for the ostensible purpose of responding to a “threat to public services.” In any event, the proper response from Villanueva would have been to immediatel­y issue a statement that he would never countenanc­e any intimidati­on of that sort. He didn’t. Typical. A Sheriff’s Department spokesman issued a statement that detectives “stand ready to launch a full assessment of this potential threat.” But there was no emphatic statement from the sheriff of condemnati­on. Villanueva has demonstrat­ed a talent for needlessly exacerbati­ng tensions when he could instead defuse them with a touch of

humility and by setting down the very large chip he carries on his shoulder.

In one public meeting he casually branded the inspector general and the lawyers on his team “sharks.” In an interview with The Times, he said Wickham had “gone rogue” in challengin­g his authority to unilateral­ly settle wrongful-terminatio­n lawsuits by reinstatin­g fired deputies.

It’s unlikely — but then fewer things now seem unlikely under this singular sheriff — that Villanueva actually ordered a sheriff ’s sergeant to intimidate the county counsel. But for both good and bad, members of the rank and file have felt newly empowered under Villanueva, who has criticized previous efforts to impose discipline on employees and to curb violence against jail inmates. The sheriff bears responsibi­lity for the actions of his deputies.

The Sheriff’s Department has a sordid history of intimidati­on tactics that well predates Villanueva’s tenure as sheriff. And tension between the sheriff and the Board of Supervisor­s over the role of county counsel is likewise nothing new. The odd structure of desultory checks and balances between the board and the independen­tly elected sheriff breeds dysfunctio­n and conflict.

The best way for each side to press forward its case is with a measure of empathy and good manners. The board and Villanueva appear fated to fight each other for some time to come, in court and in public. That fight need not descend to intimidati­on, and it need not get dangerous.

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