There Are No Progressive Sheriffs
November 14, 2022
Lee Baca was the sheriff of Los Angeles County from 1998 through 2014 when he stepped down after a series of scandals. (Baca was also sentenced to federal prison for obstruction of justice when he tried to thwart a DOJ investigation into abuses at the L.A. jail.) Jim McDonnell ran and won the sheriff's election that same year. He was defeated in 2018 by Alex Villanueva, who played on his outsider status and promise to the deputies’ union to reinstate deputies McDonnell fired.
No one has called the race yet, but it looks like Robert Luna – who was able to run as simply “the non-Villanueva” – has won.
To my great relief, no one is calling Luna a “progressive” sheriff because he’s not. Running on a platform to reduce the impact of deputy gangs – he says “eliminate,” but I find that goal improbable – and restore trust and normalcy to the LASD, Luna basically only had to agree to not make the LASD newsworthy every week. While I have found some of his claims a bit ambitious all things considered (the LASD is still embroiled in multiple lawsuits and investigations from both state and, perhaps soon, federal prosecutors ) at least he is not promising the moon. It’s a good campaign strategy: “Just stay out of the news.”
Everyone wants a progressive sheriff movement. I understand the appeal. Elections are exciting. They are also the most obvious – but not only – way to “hold sheriffs accountable.” (I put this in quotation marks because I think different people mean different things by this. Is being un-elected the same as being “held accountable”?) Elections give a winner and a loser. Elections provide the media the opportunity – AT LAST – to embrace “both sides” and position candidates as representing two different philosophies. Elections allow the donor and nonprofit classes an opportunity to invest their money and time. Knock on doors! Send flyers! Call reporters! It’s all very exciting.
Baca even said it. “Don’t elect me,” he growled when people GOT ON HIS CASE about corruption.
A surefire way to get attention is to run as a “reformer.” Joe Arpaio, who quickly got on to reforming the undergarment color of jail inmates, did it. Villanueva, who doubled down on protecting deputy gangs, did it. Heck, why not! Isn’t all change “reform” in one way or another? And if you promise to come into the office and shake things up – well, you can say you are “reforming.”
This is the empty promise of a progressive or “reformist” sheriff movement. “Progressive” implies something like a march towards progress, which I think most people on the left would define as safer jails (or at least jails where fewer people die), reducing racial disparities in arrests and investigative stops, non-cooperation with ICE (if that’s possible), some kind of medicalized approach towards substance use disorder and mental health, and data transparency, often in the form of a dashboard to show how many people are in the slightly safer jail. Throw something in there about “focusing on violent crime” and “testing rape kits,” and you are ready to go.
I understand the impulse to want progressive sheriffs to happen. Take the San Antonio, Texas, Sheriff Javier Salazar. He made a big splash by saying he wanted to arrest the people who have been accused of tricking migrants into getting on Ron DeSantis’s airplane to Martha Vineyard. He promised not to prosecute people getting abortions.
But, under Salazar, jail deaths have continued. “You are going to have jail deaths,” he said in a 2020 debate. He’s been accused of messing up cases, causing victims’ families to suffer. And, like every other sheriff in the nation, he has asked for more money for more deputies because of “violent crime.”
Even the best example, Susan Hutson, who ran for sheriff and won on a reform-minded platform with abolitionist sympathies, has struggled to change the New Orleans jail. (I wrote a profile of Hutson before her election in 2021.) Assuming, as I am willing to do, that Hutson has the best of intentions, there have been constant roadblocks like pending court cases and New Orleans politics that prevent her from stemming the death toll.
Here, I want to add my own anxieties talking about progressive sheriffs from the “left.” Look, no question, Fox News and other right-leaning media outlets salivate at critiquing any politician who promises to be even a little bit less punitive on people who face arrest and incarceration. Much of the critique Hutson faces is from the right and comes from an ugly, racist, sexist place. I want to be real and put that on the table. The greatest challenge any elected politician – judge, prosecutor, sheriff, etc. – faces is the might of the “tough-on-crime” crowd to keep being “tough” on “crime” (whatever, like Charles III said of love, “tough” and “crime” mean).
I also understand the arguments in favor of a “progressive sheriff” movement. People want to put their money and time into something that feels worthwhile. We do need a less punitive criminal legal system. We do want people to stop dying. And, even when abolition is the goal, electing better, compassionate people can serve as harm reduction.
But time and time again, sheriffs are elected promising “reform” and the system gets in the way. I do firmly disagree with the messaging that voters (e.g., funders) ought to focus on sheriff elections because sheriffs are “powerful” or “without accountability.” It’s not true. Look how efficiently the system holds reform-minded prosecutors and sheriffs accountable. All of a sudden, there are so many checks and balances! When people put their minds to something, they put checks on even the most reforming prosecutor or sheriff.
What actually needs to happen is that the nonprofit, academic, and funding classes need to stop trying to make “progressive sheriffs” happen. Instead, what should be happening is an honest reckoning with just how punitive the criminal system is, just how impervious to change it is, and just how many levers are available. An election isn’t a referendum. It’s just a day. Another day where people are needlessly suffering under a system that must be dismantled step-by-step. Pretending a movement will save us only puts off this inevitable conclusion. We murder POCs in huge numbers at the altar of the media’s phantom “crime waves.” We love to do it and to make mostly white men rich while we do it. Until we reckon with this bottom line of criminal “justice” under sheriffs and anybody else in the American legal tradition, we’re just rearranging deck chairs. And we deserve to drown.