Los Angeles County voters are soon to pick a new sheriff from a field of seven candidates, each with a reasonably decent chance of making it to a runoff, and it's hard to overstate both how unusual and how momentous that is. The last time L.A. saw a sheriff's race like this, with no incumbent running and no single candidate so embraced by political kingmakers as to have a virtual lock on victory, this county's sheriff fought crime by raising posses and galloping after outlaws in rural lairs like the Hollywood Hills.
This new state of affairs, with voters rather than power brokers or the law enforcement establishment setting the Sheriff's Department's course, may turn out to be permanent. Or it may be a mere interlude in a long and continuing history of entrenched incumbency and unaccountability. Either way, the decision voters will make in the June 3 primary (and the Nov. 4 runoff, if no candidate emerges from the first round with more than half the vote) comes at a crucial time, culminating a period of rare public scrutiny of the Sheriff's Department's management, hiring, spending, internal discipline, candor and, especially, use of force against jail inmates and visitors. The election decision will have an impact for years to come.
The pivotal question before voters is whether they believe the department is emerging from a chaotic but limited period in which professional standards broke down, and that with Sheriff Lee Baca's departure and the continuing implementation of reforms urged by a citizens commission, it is now well on its way to recovery; or if instead it is continuing on a decades-long path that promotes cliques, secrecy and abuse, and needs a sweeping and dramatic change in culture.
If it's the former situation, as some of the candidates argue, all that is needed is the right candidate from the right departmental faction to complete a sweep of troublemakers and commit to better management of the jails, and all will be well.
But if the department's problems are not that recent or simple — and the evidence is overwhelming that they are not — what is needed is a candidate with the law enforcement credentials, the integrity, the backbone and the skills to march the deputies, their leaders and their culture through a rigorous and soul-searching reinvention, all while raising performance standards and recommitting the department to transparency and humane and constitutional treatment of suspects, inmates and the public at large.
That latter standard is the bar a candidate should meet. The one who comes closest is Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell. The Times strongly recommends a vote for McDonnell for sheriff.
Is McDonnell as good as his reputation? Does he have the will, as well as the command presence, to confront and prevail over what is sure to be resistance from entrenched elements in the Sheriff's Department?
The Times' editorial page is convinced. His tenure as Long Beach police chief has been short but impressive. Before that, he was a highly regarded second in command to the Los Angeles police chief, and although he was not the most publicly visible or vocal leader of the Los Angeles Police Department during the era of Rampart reforms, his leadership during that time was unmistakable to those who closely follow the LAPD. His quick mind and thoughtful analysis were apparent as he sat on the county's Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence that cut to the heart of problems in the Sheriff's Department and recommended decisive corrective action.
It is also important to note his long relationship with community groups, including law enforcement critics. Repairing relationships between the Sheriff's Department and the communities it serves must be a priority, not merely as a nice complement to strong leadership but as an essential component of it. McDonnell is noteworthy for his emphasis on respect — for the public and for the officers he leads.
Some sheriff's deputies and leaders, and some candidates, argue that the department's current situation is a far cry from the corrupt and abusive culture and the broken leadership that characterized the LAPD in the Rampart era. But they are wrong. Beyond the contempt shown to the people of Compton by conducting surveillance flyovers without telling them; beyond the weird sale of bulletproof vests to Cambodia; beyond the appalling hires of obviously unfit deputies from other departments; beyond the findings of race-based harassment in the Antelope Valley; beyond the staggering number of deputies arrested off duty (and in some cases on duty) for drunk driving; beyond the unfathomable cases of drugs smuggled into a jail (inside a burrito, no less), alleged fraud and weapons violations by deputies, and an inmate apparently being hidden from his FBI handlers, this is a department that for decades has been inadequate to the task of constitutional policing and jailing. It needs a reboot. It needs McDonnell.
Credit retired Cmdr. Robert Olmsted for his role in calling out abuse in the jails, but he is not the leader the department needs. Todd Rogers, especially, deserves notice for his commitment to community policing, and the integrity and professionalism he brings are badly needed in the department. But like other candidates, he need not hold the top spot to be part of the solution.
A note about candidate and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka: His name comes up in virtually every report or interview about command breakdown and jail violence in the last five years of Baca's tenure. His attempts to explain some of his stunning directives — for example, his admonition to deputies to work in the "gray area" of the law and his later explanation that he meant they should use their discretion — are laughable. He is exactly the wrong person to lead the Sheriff's Department forward.
The right person is Jim McDonnell, and The Times urges a vote for him on June 3.