December 16, 2021

By LA Sentinel Editorial Board


The campaign circus has arrived. Last week, the campaign of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva disseminated at best — misleading — and at worst — flat out lies about the Black Chief of Police at LAX Airport, Cecil Rhambo, who is running to defeat him in next year's election for Sheriff.

This week, the non-profit Knock LA, which was “conceived by Ground Game LA” — a political organization that not only supports candidates but who also helps run their campaigns for office — wrote a half-baked blog post about candidate Rhambo, leaving out critical facts, while making artificial insinuations.

We are going to unpack both, but first, last week.

The county’s chief law enforcement officer, Alex Villanueva's, political arm paid to send a series of mass text messages to Democratic Party officials and activists claiming that Rhambo, who previously served as Assistant Sheriff, was a member of the deeply problematic deputy gangs within the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. With tattoos symbolizing specific gangs, or as some label them "cliques," these secret police subgroups have been widely documented by major news outlets and pose a threat to the public's safety.

Notably, Rhambo, who has repeatedly denied ever being in a deputy gang, has made ending deputy gangs at the LASD a centerpiece of his campaign. In fact, the day Rhambo launched his bid for Sheriff, he drew a contrast with Villanueva (who denies deputy gangs even exist), over the issue. 

Deputy gangs have been at the forefront of the issues in the sheriff's race. 

Given his 30-year career at the LASD, Rhambo was questioned about the issue by reporters at the onset of the race. He was also asked about his relationship with former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, his superior, and a known Viking deputy gang member. Rhambo, who in 2016 testified in court against LASD corruption, which later resulted in the prosecution of then-Sheriff Lee Baca as well as Tanaka and 10 other deputies, went on Spectrum News television days after entering the race to reveal his legs and ankles to a reporter to prove he did not have any deputy gang or clique related tattoos. He also denied ever being in or associating with deputy gangs. 

Along the same lines, a photo surfaced online the day Rhambo announced his campaign, and according to the Los Angeles Times, was also later circulated by Villanueva’s campaign in the same text messages to party officials. The image shows a young Rhambo with several deputies from 40 years ago. Both Rhambo and Tanaka are in the picture, and Rhambo is shown making a “C” and an “S” sign with his hands. Rhambo, who at the time worked at the LASD Carson Sheriff’s office, has made clear the hand gesture simply reflected a “C” for Carson and “S” for Sheriff’s, referring to the office in which he worked — not a gang.

In the months following his entrance into the Sheriff's contest, Rhambo, who underwent an immense background check and vetting process from the FBI, Homeland Security and City of Los Angeles before becoming LAX Airport Police Chief, has hammered the incumbent on a near-daily basis on deputy gangs. Rhambo has made the core of his campaign - including multiple videos - about his plans to end the deputy gangs. He additionally is supported by the elected officials who are leading the charge against these types of police gangs. Steve Bradford, Chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, who authored SB 2, California's police decertification law, and Assembly Democratic Caucus Chair, Mike Gipson, who authored AB 985, which provides a legal framework to ban police gangs altogether, both backed Rhambo last summer. Rhambo also worked with the two lawmakers in crafting their groundbreaking legislation.

Clearly, Rhambo’s next actions underscored the fact that he felt compelled to go further in proving that Villanueva's text messages were false when he took an extraordinary step and gave the Los Angeles Times and Spectrum News a video showing himself shirtless - baring his full upper body on television to show the lack of gang tattoos. In the Spectrum interview, Rhambo stated, "This is eerily reminiscent of a time in which people of color had to really be examined like cattle before a sale. But I felt compelled that, you know, because people said he might have tattoos that depict deputy gang involvement on other parts of his body. And clearly I do not."

While the text messages were patently false, Sheriff Villanueva undeniably sent them in a last-minute attempt to prevent the L.A. County Democratic Party from endorsing Rhambo for Sheriff in the upcoming June 2022 primary election. Regardless, earlier this week, the party announced that the LAX Police Chief had earned 68% of the vote among the party's Screening and Early Endorsement Recommendation (SEER) Committee, landing Rhambo a highly coveted recommendation for the full Democratic Party endorsement, which is set for a vote mid-January of 2022.

What’s next? This week.

First, the obvious conflict of interest issue here, in which Knock LA was "conceived by" and is affiliated with Ground Game LA, which literally runs campaigns and works to elect their chosen political candidates to office. Thus at the onset, this begs the question of objectivity overall with the entire Knock LA blog platform.

Secondly, the Knock LA blog neglected to include the fact that Rhambo, as he has affirmed repeatedly, including multiple times on television by revealing his body clothes-less to prove he has no gang tattoos, is not, and has never been, a member of a deputy gang or clique. There is also no concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.

Thirdly, the blog uses innuendo and implies that simply because the candidate was named in a broader LASD lawsuit or within the scope of an investigation into the LASD, he is guilty even though Rhambo was never charged with any crime nor was he personally found liable or guilty of any misconduct. This is an important note as since leaving the LASD, Rhambo had to pass an extensive vetting process, which included reviews of his tenure at LASD, with the FBI and U.S. Homeland Security, among other agencies. 

Lastly, while it's unclear when exactly the interview took place, on day one of Rhambo's campaign, the candidate outlined on his website how he would end deputy gangs. Nonetheless, the blog selectively quoted the candidate only saying, “there’s not much I can do to you unless you violate policy or the law.” Knock LA leaves out the fact that both the Bradford and Gipson bills were signed into law with Rhambo's help, meaning that members of deputy gangs can now be properly held accountable. Essentially, it also means that Rhambo helped create the legal mechanisms to solve the deputy gang problem. Rhambo has frequently, and publicly, made clear that we would enforce the new laws — effectively ending the reign of deputy sheriffs at the department.

What’s worse?

A failed incumbent sheriff who is desperate to maintain power lying about a lifelong public servant’s record? Or a blog conceived by what amounts to be a political campaign apparatus but which portends to be something else -- painting only half of a picture of Rhambo in an attempt to sow the seeds of innuendo and insinuations? The answer? Both.

Rhambo, if elected, would be the first Black sheriff of the largest Sheriff’s Department in America. And he is having to face hurdles that no other candidate is having to face, even telling the Times, “The fact that I have to prove I don’t have tattoos on my upper body, disrobe, quite frankly is a little humiliating.” Do we think that this demand would be made of him if he were a white cop from Malibu, instead of a Black man from Compton and South L.A.?

Enough is enough. The Black candidate has opened himself up, disrobed for the cameras, revealing as much as humanly possible to prove he’s never been in or a part of a deputy gang, and no evidence has been put forward to prove that in fact, Rhambo was in a gang. It's time to believe him and move on.

Category: Opinion