The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department does not want contract cities to control their budget.
On April 26, 2022, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva made headlines when he held a press conference and threatened to investigate Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian. She had just reported on his alleged coverup of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) deputy kneeling on an inmate’s neck. But less than a week prior, Villanueva made incendiary comments at another press conference, albeit on a less splashy topic: the department’s budget.
In a presentation accompanied by charts, Villanueva charged that the LA County Board of Supervisors is “defunding” LASD with a proposed “woke budget.” Similar to the press conference where Villanueva pointed to a picture of Tchekmedyian, the presentation also displays pictures of Supervisors Hilda Solis, Sheila Kuehl, and Holly Mitchell, below the words “THEY DID NOT GET THE MEMO.” By way of evidence, he pointed to a decrease in the department’s share of the overall budget: from 11.7% in 2014-2015 to the 9.0% proposed for 2022-2023. “Our budget is shrinking as the county’s budget is growing.”
As detailed in this fact sheet by the LA County CEO, LASD’s total budget increased from 2020-21 ($3.54 billion) to 2021-22 ($3.61 billion). Even Villanueva’s own charts contradict the narrative of a shrinking budget.
And, despite his claims that LASD staff reductions are the product of “the heydays of George Floyd and ‘let’s defund law enforcement,’” the Board of Supervisors instituted a partial hiring freeze in 2019 after the LASD’s deficit ballooned to $90 million under Villanueva’s tenure.
LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn told the Whittier Daily News in February 2022 that the sheriff “has the responsibility and authority to decide how he uses his $3.6 billion budget … he makes the personnel and programmatic decisions — not the Board of Supervisors or the County’s Chief Executive Office … the Sheriff has not been prevented from hiring more deputies.” This was in response to the City of Norwalk voting to increase its contract with LASD by $1.9 million, and Villanueva’s claim that LASD lacked the personnel and funds to “extend or increase any contract.”
When other contract cities, like West Hollywood, instead explore the possibility of diverting funds from their LASD contracts, local media outlets are flooded with misleading stories about skyrocketing crime.
In other words, whether a contract city wants to increase or decrease their contract with LASD, the current answer seems to be: No. An LASD whistleblower has even alleged that Villanueava’s reelection campaign manager, Javier Gonzalez, meddled in sheriff’s department contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Community College District.
Although LASD has existed since the 1850s, it took another century for the contract model, or “Lakewood Plan,” to create a formal relationship between cities and LASD.
Per the City of Lakewood’s website, “the Lakewood Plan began with the conviction that unincorporated communities didn’t have to choose between annexation by a big city or building a municipal infrastructure from scratch.” It achieved this by contracting with agencies like the sheriff’s department, which provided law enforcement services “in exchange for the new city’s court fines and forfeitures with no additional charge to the city.”
Today, 42 cities contract with LASD, which brings $315 million in annual revenue to the department. The California Contract Cities Association (CCCA) was founded in 1957 by the then eight contract cities: Lakewood, Bellflower, Duarte, La Puente, Norwalk, Paramount, Rolling Hills, and Santa Fe Springs. Lindsey Horvath is a member of the association’s executive board, as well as a member of West Hollywood City Council. She is also running to replace Supervisor Kuehl in the 2022 race for the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, District 3.
In a recent phone interview with Knock LA, Horvath explained how the contracting process operates on the broader county level, and how it works for individual contract cities like West Hollywood.
There are actually two levels of contracting between the county and each of the 42 contract cities: a five-year Municipal Law Enforcement Services Agreement, and a one-year Service Level Authorization form, or “575.” Horvath clarified that the larger agreement is negotiated by the county and the CCCA on behalf of the individual contract cities, and the CCCA “polls city officials to get feedback on the terms of the agreement.” The 575 is negotiated by the contract city and LASD. The last five-year agreements were entered into in 2019, and won’t expire until 2024. But the one-year agreements expire this June, which coincides with the finalizing of each city’s budget.
Horvath also explained that hiring and firing of LASD personnel is the jurisdiction of the department, not the cities or county — cities contract for minutes of time, not for specific deputies. If a city wants to request unique policies, individual stations need to clear those with the department.
For example, West Hollywood requested that West Hollywood sheriff’s deputies complete training with the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center. That condition was accepted, but “cities lack the ability to verify compliance or to demand accountability if LASD fails to honor such requests,” said Horvath. An audit conducted last year found that thousands of deputies had not completed their basic training requirements, such as firearms, driver awareness, and how to arrest suspects.
Although Horvath could not speak to the specific budgetary procedures of each contract city, she is intimately familiar with West Hollywood’s as a city councilmember. The city has a Public Safety Commission, and “part of their directive is to review the contract and make recommendations to the City Council.” Those recommendations then go to the council’s budget subcommittee, which typically meets twice before the budget is brought to the City Council in June. The subcommittee met once already, on April 15, and is set to meet again on May 19. These meetings are open to the public, in person and via Zoom, as are the general West Hollywood City Council meetings. Horvath recognizes that this process can seem opaque, and hopes members of the public will feel empowered to offer questions and feedback.
It is rare, but not unprecedented, for cities to end their contracts with LASD. Downey incorporated as a contract city, but later founded its own police department. In the 1980s, Long Beach briefly contracted with LASD while its police force was being reorganized. Cities are technically free to opt out of their contracts at any time, assuming they have the political will and vision to see it through.
Cancel the Contract: Antelope Valley (CTCAV) is a coalition of community organizers that’s trying to build that political will and reimagine public safety in a traditionally isolated and conservative part of LA County. The group was launched in March 2021 with a clear set of demands, chief among them being: to get LASD out of schools, and replace “school resource officers” (SROs) with counselors, mentors, and afterschool programs.
Waunette Cullors, CTCAV’s campaign co-chair, has lived in the Antelope Valley for years, and knew there would be resistance to this mission. It didn’t take long to show itself.
“When we first started the coalition — I live on a private street, so there’s really no reason for law enforcement to be on there — law enforcement was coming and sitting in front of my house five, six times a day.”
Undeterred, Cullors and the rest of CTCAV began canvassing, marching, hosting town halls, and meeting with school board and city council members to advocate for canceling the LASD contract. “Our funds are being mishandled on every level of policing in the Antelope Valley. And the community is none the wiser.”
CTCAV is starting to change that. They’ve mobilized teachers, counselors, parents, and the students themselves to advocate for alternatives to LASD. Raquel Derfler, a member of CTCAV’s steering committee, wants people to understand that “there’s no state or federal guidelines for behavior of an SRO. There’s nothing that regulates that. Whatever they do in the community, they do in the school.”
Apparently, the contract itself offers little guidance. “Basically, what the contract between LASD and the school district states is that the district has hired them for law enforcement purposes. That’s it. There’s no guidelines for how these SROs are supposed to interact with students,” says Derfler.
Cullors agrees: “The SROs have not had any training to work with children. They don’t have to have any psychology background. They don’t have to have kids, like kids, know a kid, anything.” When they asked the Antelope Valley Union High School District superintendent and assistant superintendent whether they have any part in vetting or choosing the sheriff’s deputies assigned to their schools, Cullors and Derfler were told that decision was left to the sheriff’s station.
The Antelope Valley Union High School District did not return comment to Knock LA by the time of publication.
The District pays $1.8 million for LASD’s services. Derfler says that money “covers nine sheriff’s deputies. That much money for nine sheriff’s deputies… we would want that 1.8 million to be spent on counselors, and for these after-school programs that are being cut. When a child acts out, there’s a reason for it. Something’s happening in their home life.”
“Acting out” can have a wide range of meanings. A parent who is part of her child’s school safety committee shared a list of infractions with CTCAV, and what the corresponding school response was. For littering, it was to call the sheriff.
Cullors and Derfler echoed Horvath’s concern that the contracting and budgeting process has been unclear to the public. Derfler says CTCAV is “starting an education process for understanding that students, parents, and community have a say in the school budget, how the school district spends the money. But that hasn’t been the case out here, and that’s been one of our complaints, that the community hasn’t had a say.”
Cullors and Derfler encourage people to attend school board and city council meetings, to vote in local elections, and to keep pressing for change. “There’s strength in more of us.” With budget and contract finalizations mere weeks away across LA County, that advice couldn’t be more timely.
These financial and legal agreements are often impersonal and difficult to parse, but that obscures the effects that ripple out from them — on schools, on families, on entire communities. It’s often said that budgets are moral documents, but without more oversight and transparency, the numbers won’t add up to reflect Los Angeles’ values.