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Sheriff Candidate Robert Luna Struggles to Win Over Progressives

Luna is endorsed by the LA Democratic Party and seven former sheriff candidates.

Robert Luna, wearing a blue shirt, speaks into a microphone he is a holding.

Retired Long Beach Police Department Chief Robert Luna is heading into the runoff against incumbent Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in November. While he has wooed the Democratic establishment and all seven other challengers to the incumbent, progressives and critics of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) are not convinced he will hold the department accountable. 

Sheriff Villanueva received 454,556 votes in the June primary. Luna came in second with 383,181 votes, and Eric Strong came in third with 232,274 votes. Strong ran on a platform of not opening any new jails, canceling the contracts between schools and the LASD, committing to closing down Men’s Central Jail, and eliminating deputy gangs. He also pledged to not increase department personnel while in office, and received an endorsement from civil rights activist Stevie Wonder.

Luna, who will be in the runoff with Villanueva, by contrast, is an establishment candidate. One of his campaign platforms is using law enforcement to “address homelessness,” through some combination of “multi-disciplinary team” and diversion programs. His stances on many issues are unclear. Most recently, Luna oversaw the Long Beach Police Department, which is ranked the seventh-worst police department in the country by PoliceScorecard.org

In May 2020, the Long Beach city attorney’s office reported that the city spent more than $31 million since 2014 to settle some 61 excessive force and wrongful death lawsuits against the LBPD. In 2018, LBPD made international headlines when it was revealed that the department, including Luna, had been using a self-deleting messaging app called TigerText. For the first year and a half of Luna’s tenure as chief in Long Beach, he allowed an antiquated practice of entrapping gay men for lewd conduct charges. These police sting operations were only stopped after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge called them out as discriminatory in 2016. 

A lawsuit filed against the City of Long Beach by a retired Black police helicopter pilot alleges he and other Black employees at the LBPD were frequently denied promotions into management positions, subjected to unjust punishment, and publicly humiliated. In recent years the LBPD has run over a thousand facial recognition searches without indicating any suspected criminal activity; the people were surveilled after attending a protest against the murder of George Floyd.  

Organizers advocating for LASD transparency say they will work on further pressuring the LA County Board of Supervisors to continue pushing reforms, and advocate for voters to approve the charter amendment that will allow voters to remove a sitting sheriff.

“It’s all the same to me … I just really hope [Luna] comes in and actually gets rid of these deputy gangs who are murdering our children,” says Helen Jones-Phillips, a community organizer with Dignity and Power Now (DPN), a nonprofit that advocates for abolishing prisons and restorative justice for incarcerated people. Jones’ son, John Horton, died in Men’s Central Jail in 2009. Jones alleges that the 3000 Boys beat her son to death and covered it up by trying to make it look like a suicide. She settled a $2 million civil lawsuit with LA County in 2016. “I would like to see Luna change the attitude of these sheriff’s deputies who terrorize our Black and brown impacted communities.”

Lex Steppling, DPN’s national director of organizing,  says he doesn’t expect Luna to have any policy ideas. “The campaigns that are Katzenberg-funded are gonna be trash.” Media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg supported Luna with a $500,000 independent expenditure. “The Luna campaign is simply gonna be like, ‘Let’s just pretend to be status quo, because we think that’s what liberals actually want.’ It’s radical centrist bullshit.”

Steppling says that DPN’s top-line issue is the closure of Men’s Central Jail, and doesn’t see the Luna campaign engaging with that issue in good faith. Steppling says that Strong — who pledged to close Men’s Central Jail and committed to not opening any new jails — would have won if he had received financial support similar to Luna’s. 

Andrés Dae Keun Kwon, policy counsel and senior organizer with ACLU of Southern California, says the organization has been focusing on structural change to the LASD rather than on the Luna campaign. “If you get rid of the head of the monster, so to speak,” Kwon said, referring to Sheriff Villanueva, “it’s just going to grow another head.” 

Kwon says the charter amendment for sheriff removal is a project the ACLU has worked on for three years. In an attempt to reign in the LASD, the ACLU previously worked to pass Measure R, which gave the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) the power to subpoena a sitting sheriff. Measure R has had mixed results, as Sheriff Villanueva has disobeyed the COC’s subpoenas six times now without consequence. Kwon sees the charter amendment that would allow the Board to remove a sitting sheriff — Measure A — as a way of adding teeth to the commission’s subpoena power. 

“The most important thing for us is for the Sheriff’s Department to come into compliance with the 2015 settlement agreement with the Department of Justice,” says Raquel Derfler, who is a steering committee member and chair of the education workgroup of Cancel the Contract AV, a group working to cancel LASD contracts with schools in the Antelope Valley. The DOJ determined that the LASD was unconstitutionally harassing and intimidating people — mostly Black — with Section 8 housing vouchers so that they would leave Antelope Valley. They also determined a pattern of racially biased policing. “So here we are in 2022, and they’re still out of compliance. We met with the captains of the Palmdale and Lancaster stations, and they honestly think that they’re doing nothing wrong. They say the reason they’re out of compliance is because the expectations of the justice department are unrealistic — but the settlement agreement is just constitutional policing.” 

Steppling says he doesn’t expect Luna to pivot or run against the charter amendment: “If he decides to be more vocal against the charter amendment, I don’t think that helps him. But I’m not sure what to expect so far. He’s just trying to say as little as he can.” 

Luna told LAist in a June 10 interview, “I am open to change, ready to pivot, as [I] listen to what the community is telling us.” 

It’s now plausible that Sheriff Villanueva will no longer be in charge of the world’s largest policing agency. But it isn’t clear how Luna would structurally change the nature of the violent and corrupt department, or if he even has any interest in performing that necessary task. Those seeking accountability say that change can only come from pressuring powerful outside entities like the Board of Supervisors, rather than hope for accountability to come from within the Sheriff’s Department.