Los Angeles, CA–Eight Candidates want Alex Villanueva’s seat as L.A County Sheriff and two of these candidates, Eric Strong and Cecil Rhambo, would be the first African-American Sheriff in our county’s history. Early January, I penned an article with the publisher of L.A Focus Newspaper on Rhambo. Here is a follow up Q&A with Rhambo on his career in law enforcement, plans for police reform and issues surrounding allegations that he knew of misconduct while working in the department at the same time as Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka.
Rhambo spent more than 33 years with LAPD, followed by a three-year stint at Carson Assistant City Manager from 2014 to 2017 and two years as Compton City Manager before taking on his current position as Chief of Police for the Los Angeles International Airport, the largest police agency in the nation dedicated exclusively to 24-hour airport activities and the fourth largest law enforcement agency in Los Angeles County, with more than 1,100 law enforcement, security and staff.
What would be your response to African-American apathy towards not only the political system but more specifically policing? Why should African-Americans vote in the upcoming Sheriff race?
Rhambo: Voter apathy is not just a phenomenon in the African American community. However, it’s an experience I can relate to. At previous points in my life, I had been politically apathetic because I, like many other voters, often felt like my vote did not count and the system is rigged, or it doesn’t really matter who you vote for.
When it comes to the race for LA County Sheriff, many voters don’t even realize that not only is the Sheriff an elected position, it is in fact only one of three county-wide elected offices. And for those who are aware of this, I understand how discouraging it can be to not see critical changes being made to the department, particularly after electing someone who branded himself as a reformer. But that is no excuse to disengage and sit this election out. The stakes are too important.
African Americans should vote in the upcoming election for Sheriff for several reasons:
- People of color are significantly overrepresented in the jail and criminal justice system.
- The Sheriff of Los Angeles County is not only responsible for policing black and brown communities in LA County, the Sheriff is also responsible for their safe housing in the custodial system, transportation to and from court, civil processes such as eviction services, and protecting citizens and employees who work and utilize our county public services such as DPSS, as well as county health clinics and parks.
- Historically, African Americans are the community most impacted by the criminal justice system and should have a voice in who holds leadership in the Sheriff’s Department.
- There happens to be a biracial African American/Korean candidate running for Sheriff with a record of commonsense, progressive policing that has the most real-world qualifications for the position than any other candidate.
There have been some pretty scathing think pieces done on your policing career. What misconceptions would you like to make clear?
Rhambo: I have never been a part of deputy gang, and any claims otherwise are an outright lie. Since retiring from the Sheriff’s Department, I have been sought out for even higher levels of responsibility in the public service sector because of my integrity, leadership, ability to collaborate, work hard, and to repair broken internal cultures and systems.
The reality is that no other candidate in this race has been vetted by as many background exams as I have. Since leaving the LASD, I have held the highest-level administrative positions in policing as a chief of police and top administrator for two LA County cities, and received a more in-depth background and vetting process for FBI “Secret” level clearance, which I currently hold. No other candidate in this race has been scrutinized to the detail that I have, nor have they held more positions of responsibility at the highest levels in the public service delivery sector.
Despite the narrative being painted by some, I have a long history of progressive policing practices from many corners of the department that is unmatched in this race.
As a Sergeant in the LASD Internal Affairs Bureau, I assisted in the formation of the Shooting and Force Response Team in the wake of the Rodney King beating, the first time the Department began routinely reviewing reports on the use of force.
As the Captain of Compton’s Sheriff patrol contract, I used community policing in the worst-hit communities to bring about a dramatic reduction in crime, gang activity, and traffic fatalities. Through demonstrated community engagement, collaboration, development of intervention and prevention programs to positively impact at-risk youth, the Sheriff’s Contract in the City of Compton is the only contract that requires a ballot measure to cancel. The lasting and ongoing relationships that I built with the community led the City Council to seek me out as a City Manager 20 years later.
I also re-built the Sheriff’s Community Oriented Policing Bureau, where I designed a “soft-approach” for interacting with the chronically homeless, with deputies partnering with outreach workers to provide the chronically homeless with housing and connect them with critical wrap around services.
And I’m the only candidate to open an investigation into deputy gangs that resulted in termination, as I started the investigation into the Jump Off Boys that ended in the firing of four officers. I am also the only candidate to work an internal criminals investigation unit that conducted criminal investigations on Sheriff’s personnel. And, I am the only candidate that stood up to power and testified in Federal Court leading to the conviction of the elected Sheriff and Undersheriff on Federal charges.
Many of the positive relationships that I’ve developed and endorsements I’ve received from community members, elected officials and criminal justice reform advocates are a direct result of my policing career, building meaningful relationships and maintaining positive and open communication, which is indicative of their trust in my leadership, character and integrity to protect and serve their constituents. This includes managing a federally-funded safe haven known as “weed and seed”, establishing a youth athletic league in Compton, Willowbrook and Antelope Valley, as well as organizing and working with gang intervention workers and mothers of former gang members who were murdered as grief counselors.
Within these articles are information relating to officer involved shootings you may have been involved in. Can you speak to these incidents mentioned? And for the record, how many people have you shot while on duty?
Rhambo: First and foremost, I have never shot any civilians while on duty.
I urge you and voters to read the source documents of those deputy involved shootings and not buy into salacious headlines. In first two incidents that involved unfortunate friendly fire, most of the deputies at the scene discharged their weapons, shots were heard, or a gun was seen. These were extremely chaotic events close to four decades ago at the height of the crack epidemic and War on Drugs where street violence was literally 3-4 times the rate we see today. In both instances, multiple deputy personnel discharged their weapons and literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in PCP and or cocaine were recovered as well as a fully automatic weapon.
The third shooting occurred over 30 years ago while I was off duty taking out money at an ATM when two suspects tried to rob me at gun point, so I defended myself by using my firearm. The suspect’s weapon was recovered at the scene, though confronted by two suspects, I fired at the armed suspect to defend myself. He survived and he is likely out of custody by now. I hope the other candidates in the race are asked this question as well.
What would be your approach to eradicating gangs in the Sheriff’s department? What is your response to people who say you supported problematic officers such as Paul Tanaka?
Rhambo: My approach to eradicating deputy gangs within the department is as follows, starting with setting the tone for zero tolerance of deputy gangs
- Changing the culture in regards to deputy gangs in the department starts with the right people being in positions of power. As Sheriff, I will insist on hiring and promoting the right candidates for positions within the department, selecting training and management staff that reflects my values of zero tolerance for this behavior.
- Next, I will incorporate training in the academy and at the various management schools on how to identify, and stop the recruitment and formation of such groups before they manifest themselves.
- I will work with outside entities to investigate suspected deputy gangs that violate the criminal definition of the new law.
- Additionally, I will draft a more stringent policy that requires mandated reporting if a deputy is approached or recruited by a suspected deputy gang member.
- Included in that policy will be critical protections for whistleblowers and an “offramp” for members who want to denounce their involvement and have not been involved in serious misconduct, if applicable.
- Lastly, I will meet and confer with the labor unions representing deputies and let them know that anyone who is identified as being in such a sub-group (that has not risen to the criminal definition of a deputy gang) shall not be eligible for the positions of training officer, specialized assignment, or promotion.
Whenever we crossed paths within the department, Paul Tanaka was always my supervisor. We were only peers for a very brief period of time in the mid-1980s for less than 6 months. It was not within my authority or ability to promote Tanaka, which was entirely up to then Sheriff Block and later Sheriff Baca. In fact, I didn’t work directly for Tanaka until over a decade later, where I served as his subordinate, and was not aware of his Viking allegiance at that time. When faced with conflicting ethical and moral values, again, I point to my testimony during the Federal investigation of the Sheriff and the Undersheriff.
Have you ever been part of a deputy gang while an officer?
Rhambo: No, absolutely not. I am the only candidate that literally disrobed to prove this fact.
Describe your relationship with Lee Baca. What went wrong to where we see our former Sheriff currently behind bars? What would you have done in that situation?
Rhambo: Lee Baca was the elected Sheriff of LA County, I was a deputy sheriff that worked under him within his department. My relationship with him was professional and cordial. His biggest mistakes were putting too much faith into the wrong subordinates, and not understanding that what he and others were doing by interfering with an FBI investigation was not only wrong, but criminal.
At one time I worked undercover for the FBI as well as two tours of duty at Internal Affairs at two different ranks, so I clearly understood the situation at hand and the potential consequences for interfering with a federal investigation.
If I were in his situation, I would have cooperated with the investigation from day one, looked for common ground with the issues, identified corrective action measures, formed an internal oversight unit to ensure the corrective actions were taking place and that all staff were fully cooperating with the federal investigation, then moved to discipline (up to including discharge and seeking to file criminal charges) on any personnel that were obstructing or interfering with the investigation. After the investigation, I would’ve dissected areas for future improvement, developed policy around those issues to ensure the department did not regress, and continue to work closely with the FBI and outside monitors such as the ACLU as needed.
What would be your response to folks who say the culture of the Sheriff’s is so ingrained that one man cannot fix department issues?
Rhambo: One man or woman by themselves may not be able to fix the wide-ranging issues within the entire department, which is why it’s crucial that the Sheriff, as the Chief Executive of the department, selects a high-quality team of not only law enforcement personnel, but also works with the Inspector General’s office, Board of Supervisors, and consultants to address the multitude of issues at LASD. But establishing a shift in culture starts at the top, it is clear that one man or woman can lead an organizational cultural change through the proper vision, shared values, stated goals, policy, training, discipline, recruitment, and systems to foster the desired culture, which is what I will do as LA County’s Sheriff.
Name three main issues you plan to focus on first year in office.
Rhambo: My top priority in office is re-establishing public trust, which entail a number of actions that must take place, including an immediate and relentless commitment to ending deputy gangs, regular public and private meetings with members of the Board of Supervisors and their staff as well as the Inspector General and Civilian Oversight Commission.
Addressing Homelessness (within the Sheriff’s Department’s jurisdiction) and dedicating LASD staff to joining the region-wide homeless working group committee, as well as directing Sheriff’s Station Patrol Captains to work with their city councils on their plans to address homelessness in their communities. The incorporation of how each municipality addresses homelessness will be important on how the region addresses homelessness.
Filling personnel vacancies to address rising crime, to properly and safely meet the department’s myriad of diverse responsibilities.
Anything else you feel is important and want the people to know.
Rhambo: This is one of the most important elections for Sheriff in modern times. The current Sheriff has brought a combative, divisive, corrupt, and toxic political climate to Los Angeles County in a way that I’ve never before witnessed.
I am a lifelong public servant and have been committed to public service delivery in public safety as well as municipal services for millions of people over my 45 years in service. I have done much of my work in disadvantaged communities, taking on complex social challenges through creative, collaborative and “progressive” programs throughout LA County, all of my adult life. I bring compassion, empathy, energy, and integrity to the office with the broadest base of real world relevant municipal service experience ever possessed by a Sheriff’s candidate.
My many endorsements, the most of any candidate in the race, are relevant because it demonstrates to their millions of constituents that their elected leaders trust and support me to be the Chief law enforcement officer in the county, and that I share their values to progressively police their communities with dignity, respect, integrity, and compassion.