Column: If California finally starts cracking down on rogue sheriffs, thank Alex Villanueva of the Santa Clara sheriff’s office for being a poster boy for the issue.
When the California Sheriffs’ Association decided to put up one of the most prominent defenders of the sheriffs’ authority in the world on its membership rolls last week, his name was not the most sought after. But it wasn’t bad, either. Villanueva is a former federal marshal and federal narcotics agent, a man whom the Associated Press once profiled as the “King of the Mexican Drug War.” He ran the most active and aggressive anti-gang task force in the country, was an investigator for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and has since won fame nationally for his campaign against the sheriff’s deputies’ union.
Villanueva’s latest venture is an effort to get the state Legislature, which has for decades refused to take action on this issue, to finally pass what he calls a much-needed law—the Sheriffs Act of 2011, written with John Burris, a Democrat from the Bay Area who, as a state senator, was instrumental in passing the bill.
“Sheriffs are at the forefront of a war that is costing lives, as it should,” says Villanueva, who is in Santa Clara visiting a former college classmate, who has since become a deputy sheriff. “But I don’t want to see a war that has lost its momentum, and I don’t want to see a county that has lost its ability to take effective action.”
Villanueva, like many of the sheriffs who have rallied behind this issue, is not the first person to push for tougher laws against rogue sheriffs. When he first started the Santa Clara County Sheriffs’ Association in 2004, he told his staff to compile a list of sheriffs who might be prosecuted as “unfair competition” under California’s anti-trust laws. With encouragement from fellow sheriffs, he put the names on an