New leader for L.A. Sheriff's Department must rebuild public trust
Voters are charged with choosing the candidate who would not only lead the troubled law enforcement agency into the future, but restore public trust
By Christina Villacorte
LOS ANGELES — The June 3 election will force a rare changing of the guard at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and voters are charged with choosing the candidate who would not only lead the troubled law enforcement agency into the future, but restore public trust.
The recent barrage of scandals — everything from favoritism in hiring to obstruction of justice — that ended former Sheriff Lee Baca’s 16-year tenure may have disheartened voters, but Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson hopes they’ll troop to the polls anyway.
“This is not the time to become apathetic or discouraged,” she said. “This is an opportunity for the people of the county to shape one of the most crucial departments serving them.”
“The Sheriff’s Department, frankly, does a lot more than any other law enforcement agency that exists,” she added. “People would be surprised at how much the work of the Sheriff’s Department touches their lives on a day-to-day basis.”
“Voters should take this election seriously,” agreed Claremont McKenna College politics professor Jack Pitney. “Our safety depends on it.”
Largest in the world
Los Angeles County has the largest Sheriff’s Department in the world, with a budget of $2.8 billion and more than 17,000 employees – enough to nearly fill the seats at Staples Center. The person elected sheriff earns a salary of around $300,000.
About 9,000 of those personnel have sworn an oath to “protect and serve,” making LASD the fourth-largest law enforcement agency in the nation, behind the New York, Chicago and Los Angeles police departments.
Deputies patrol the county’s unincorporated areas and 42 of its 88 incorporated cities — total population: 3 million. Wearing tan-and-green uniforms, they walk the gang-infested streets of East Los Angeles and keep a lookout for wildfires in the Angeles National Forest.
LASD also secures courthouses — where deputies serve as bailiffs — community colleges, government buildings, parks, marinas and the vast network of buses and trains operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Metrolink.
Its jail system — the largest in the world — holds an average of 18,000-20,000 inmates a day, about 17 percent of whom are believed to have mental illness. The Vera Institute of Justice estimated it costs $95-$140 per day to house each inmate, without factoring in the cost of mental health treatment.
Vanir Construction Management, a private contractor hired by the county to look into building a new jail, estimated about half of those behind bars haven’t been convicted of a crime but aren’t able to afford bail and are awaiting trial. Most of the arrests are made by the LAPD and other police departments, as well as probation officers and parole agents.
The sheriff’s badge, shaped like a six-pointed star, has been tarnished by the recent federal indictment of almost two dozen deputies, sergeants and lieutenants for various allegations that include abuse at the jails, hiding an informant from the FBI and threatening an FBI agent outside her home.
Reforms are under way but Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the blue ribbon Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, stressed a new sheriff is “vital to restoring the confidence of the community.”
“Unless and until there’s new leadership and an ongoing independent civilian eye (similar to the CCJV) that never moves the spotlight away from the department, we’re going to see some of these negative cycles repeat themselves,” she warned.
“The reforms are a work in progress,” agreed Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “It’ll be up to the next sheriff to implement the changes.”
James McDonnell is the only department outsider in the race, having spent the bulk of his career at the Los Angeles Police Department, where he was second-in-command to former Chief William Bratton.
Now chief of the Long Beach Police Department, McDonnell has what is arguably the most impressive list of endorsements, including those of state Attorney General Kamala Harris, county District Attorney Jackie Lacey and Supervisors Don Knabe and Yaroslavsky.
“I’d bring in a fresh perspective as an outsider,” McDonnell said. “I have no relationships within the organization that could cloud that (and) I’ve been involved in the transformation of two police departments that had issues.”
“I sat on the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence and got an education on what was wrong and what needed to be done in the jails and throughout the LASD,” he added.
Gardena Mayor Paul Tanaka was once Baca’s second-in-command, until they had a bitter falling out. The former undersheriff is also a certified public accountant, and served as the department’s budget manager.
“As a 31-year veteran of the department, I’m the only candidate who has the institutional knowledge that is critical for restoring trust and credibility to the organization,” he said. “The position of sheriff is too big and too important for on-the-job training.”
The commission, however, blamed Tanaka for some of the abuses at the jails, citing evidence that he urged deputies to be aggressive and “function right on the edge of the line” or “work in the gray area” (somewhere between what is legal and not).
Two other members of Baca’s inner circle are in the running: Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers is currently in charge of budget and personnel, while Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold directs the patrol and detective divisions.
Rogers believes Baca trusted the wrong people, saying, “The problem is, bad apples were given too much authority.”
“They were not qualified and they seriously abused that authority,” he added. “That is unacceptable and I will bring reforms.”
Hellmold advocates fulfilling the department’s core functions while embracing new technologies.
“Public safety simply means continuing the lowest crime levels in more than 40 years,” he said. “It also means responding to calls for service quickly, ensuring emergency preparedness and school safety, and modernizing the Sheriff’s Department to deal with the rising cybercrime and identity theft.”
Retired Sheriff’s Commander Robert Olmsted touts himself as the “whistleblower” who alerted the FBI about the misconduct at the jails.
“It’s shameful what happened to this great department,” Olmsted said. “The leaders set the tone, and they created a culture where rogue deputies and the command staff violated the law and their sacred oath.”
Retired Sheriff’s Lieutenant Patrick Gomez ran against Baca in 1998 and 2002. He once sued the department for denying him promotions and harassing his family, supposedly because he challenged Baca. He ended up winning a nearly $1 million payout.
Gomez vowed to correct the failings of the previous leadership, and urged voters to reject candidates who had been in Baca’s inner circle.
“I cannot sit back and let them destroy the department any more than they already have,” he said.
Los Angeles Police Department Senior Detective Supervisor Lou Vince is a former Marine who also volunteered in the LASD as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff for four years, and holds a master’s degree in criminology. He plans to enhance crime fighting by using “computer statistics and predictive policing,” and to install additional cameras, even in patrol cars, to increase transparency.
“I don’t believe the Sheriff’s Department has been beset by corruption or scandal – I believe it’s been best by poor management, poor leadership,” he said.
Levenson, the criminal law professor, said the new sheriff must meet stringent criteria.
“I think integrity is key,” she said. “It should be somebody who’s experienced in law enforcement, and who has the confidence of law enforcement personnel.”
“He should be a good manager, politically savvy, and with a great deal of courage to take on the different issues that confront the county — from homeland security to modern approaches toward law enforcement, even inmate rehabilitation and penal reform,” she added.
If a candidate were to win the majority of votes on June 3, the county Board of Supervisors could remove interim Sheriff John Scott, and appoint the sheriff-elect to lead the department immediately. If no candidate exceeds 50 percent, the top two would face a runoff election on Nov. 4 and the winner would be sworn in Dec. 1.
If voters choose poorly, the consequences can be costly — literally.
“County taxpayers paid about $40 million last year in settlements and jury verdicts for illegal behavior on the part of the Sheriff’s Department,” American Civil Liberties Union legal director Peter Eliasberg said.
“I believe most taxpayers would rather spend that on new parks, a better healthcare system, et cetera, than jury verdicts and settlements for Sheriff’s Department malfeasance,” he added.
If voters make a mistake, they may have to live with it for a long, long time. There are no term limits on a sheriff. Even though incumbents are up for re-election every four years, they have virtually insurmountable advantages over challengers.
To be viable, candidates would need to wage an expensive campaign throughout the 4,000-square mile county, from the Los Angeles Basin to the San Fernando, San Gabriel, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys, and even Catalina Island.
The Sheriff’s Department was created in 1850, back when Los Angeles was the Wild West and deputies rode in posses — and yet Baca is only its 30th sheriff.
He and his predecessor, Sherman Block, each served 16 years. Neither was unseated by a challenger — Baca retired, and Block died in office only days before the election in which Baca challenged him.
Before them, Peter Pitchess and Eugene Biscailuz were in office 23 and 26 years, respectively.
“Voters need to get this right,” said Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, who founded the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence after deputies allegedly maltreated her mentally ill brother in jail. “I will be living with this sheriff until I have kids, and my kids will probably be living with this sheriff too — that’s just how it works.”