Shooting of off-duty deputy pulls Villanueva from town hall meeting

Captain Robert Lewis of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station (left) answers questions next to Chief of Staff Lawrence Del Mese at a town hall meeting at The Centre in Canyon Country Monday night. Cory Rubin/ The Signal

Although a town hall meeting with LASD Sheriff Alex Villanueva turned out to be a meeting without Villanueva, a handful of sergeants filling in shared some good news with the public and left questions about local law enforcement for Santa Clarita Valley’s top cop to answer.

Villanueva had been “pulled away” by a “serious event” the sheriff’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Del Mese explained without sharing details.

Town hall attendees would learn later that Villanueva responded immediately upon hearing an off-duty deputy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had been shot and seriously wounded inside an Alhambra restaurant.

Details about the shooting were expected to be revealed by LASD Homicide Bureau Capt. Kurt Wegener on the steps of Gateway Plaza Park at 8 p.m. Monday.

While the town hall meeting was unfolding at the Santa Clarita Sports Complex at 20880 Centre Pointe Parkway, scores of deputies were scouring Alhambra for the suspected gunman.

Capt. Robert Lewis of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station stepped up the podium where more than 100 town hall attendees expected to see Villanueva standing.

Lewis answered questions on gun permits, the homeless, gang prevalence, bicycle safety, mental health resources and home invasions.

In less than an hour, the meeting was over.

In Villanueva’s absence, Lewis shared crime news with attendees.

“Crimes are down by 400 over this time last year,” he said, in answering a question about home invasions.

Seizing the chance to talk about crime in the SCV, LASD North Patrol Division Chief Dennis M. Kneer, who heads the LASD’s North Division, heaped praise on Lewis and the job he’s done reducing crime.

“We are experiencing the lowest crime rate in the history of the Santa Clarita Valley,” he said. “It is now one of the top safest cities in California.

In sharing the appropriate quote, Kneer reached back over 200 years of law enforcement to quote Sir Robert Peel, the man attributed for the British term “Bobbies” for policemen.

“He said, ‘Police are the public, and the public are the police,’” Kneer said, adding on that cue: “Capt. Robert Lewis has done a phenomenal job.

“And, that new station right down the road,” he said, referring to the new sheriff’s station under construction. “That’s going to be the crown jewel.”

And, Kneer had more good news to share.

“We’re going to build an emergency vehicle operations center near Pitchess (Detention Center),” he said.

On the issue of hiring more sheriff’s deputies, Del Mese told attendees that the LASD plans on hiring a lot of new deputies.

“When we took over in December,” Del Mese said, referring to Villanueva winning the election. “There were 952 vacancies in the Sheriff’s Department.”

Del Mese called the number of vacancies “daunting.”

“We had to begin a recruitment and hiring drive,” he said. “We are going to increase the number of academies from six to 12.

“And, we plan to hire 1,000 (recruits) this year and another 1,000 next year,” he said.

If there was a controversy during the town hall meeting, it was rooted in the concerns voiced by a group waving placards who wanted Villaneuva to change his position on Senate Bill 54, essentially calling out the sheriff for not allowing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers into county jails.

Del Mese told the placard-holders that Villanueva was simply carrying out state law.

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