Indictments underscore Jim McDonnell's challenges as L.A. County sheriff

Indictments underscore Jim McDonnell's challenges as L.A. County sheriff
Sheriff Jim McDonnell has taken a wait-and-see approach, slowly getting to know the people around him before shifting top commanders or making other significant changes. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

A new round of indictments this week that reached the highest ranks of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department underscores the challenges facing new Sheriff Jim McDonnell he tries to reform the troubled agency.

Federal prosecutors painted a troubling picture of the department under former longtime Sheriff Lee Baca and his second in command, Paul Tanaka.


Internal investigations of misconduct, including beatings of jail inmates by sheriff's deputies, were woefully inadequate, prosecutors said. Tanaka threatened those who reported misbehavior by saying they themselves would be investigated, and he instructed deputies to push the boundaries by working in the "gray area," prosecutors wrote.

The indictments of Tanaka and now-retired sheriff's Capt. William "Tom" Carey on Thursday on charges of obstructing an FBI investigation put the department's past problems back in the headlines at a time when McDonnell is assessing how to remake the 18,000-person agency.

McDonnell, an LAPD veteran and former Long Beach police chief, was overwhelmingly voted into office last year, defeating Tanaka, while vowing to clean up the mess.

In just over five months in office, he has taken a wait-and-see approach, slowly getting to know the people around him before shifting top commanders or making other significant changes.

After Tanaka and Carey were taken into custody Thursday, McDonnell sent a department-wide email asking that employees look past the indictments and focus on their work.

He also cautioned department members not to have any contact with Tanaka, once a sought-after associate because he controlled promotions and assignments, or Carey. Department policy forbids fraternizing with anyone facing criminal charges.

McDonnell has said that everyone — including Tanaka's allies — will be given a fair shake in his administration as long as they prove that they have moved past their former bosses' way of doing things.

At his inauguration Dec. 1, McDonnell departed from his usually measured public rhetoric, characterizing the past few years in the Sheriff's Department as a civil war and urging department members to put aside those divisions.

"Many of you felt you were being asked to choose between what was best for the organization and what was best for a few people who were only trying to serve themselves," McDonnell said. "I am telling you that as of today, those days are gone."

Allies say it would be wrong to take McDonnell's unflappable, almost bland demeanor as a lack of toughness.

"The fact that he's friendly and has a sense of humor and is not about himself is very refreshing," said Sheriff's Department Executive Officer Neal Tyler, the No. 2 official. "But any attempt to underestimate him as a mere glad-handing, friendly guy would be a big mistake."

One of McDonnell's first moves as sheriff was to ask high-ranking officials for a written self-evaluation laying out their personal goals as well as suggestions for improving the department. Some turned in a few pages, while the longer submissions ran 30 pages. He met with those officials one-on-one, also assessing the mood of rank-and-file deputies in group meetings.

As he goes about his business, McDonnell informally solicits opinions about what the new Sheriff's Department should look like, aides said. He is likely to substantially change the structure of the department, in addition to reassigning some high-level supervisors.

Initially, McDonnell said the reorganization could come after the March retirement season, but he has held off as he continues to evaluate the performance and personalities of his subordinates.


He is heavily involved in disciplinary matters, reviewing all cases with potentially serious consequences, Tyler said. In January, McDonnell acted swiftly when three deputies were allegedly involved in a towing scandal, relieving them of duty and announcing the actions in a press release.

"He has such a strong character and ethics that he may be the only kind of person that can come in and clean up this department and right this ship," said Brian Moriguchi, president of the union that represents sheriff's supervisors. "McDonnell is going to have to identify the handful of bad cops and followers of Paul Tanaka and find some way to get rid of them and improve the integrity of the department."

Jeffrey Steck, who heads the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said McDonnell came in with a reputation for taking his time, having employed a similar approach when he took over the Long Beach Police Department.

"Whenever you take over a new job, you need to learn first before you make changes," Steck said. "We knew he was going to be very methodical in his thinking."

But for some, change has not come fast enough.

Bob Olmsted, a retired commander who ran for sheriff against McDonnell, said he had hoped that the new sheriff would immediately shake things up.

"When you go into an environment where are things running smoothly, there's no need to come in as a new president or manager and make changes," Olmsted said. "But with total dysfunction, to go in and not make changes, to wait things out I don't think is a good strategy."

In one arena, McDonnell has already made his preferences clear. Without issuing an official directive, he is holding sworn employees to a high standard when it comes to their uniforms. That includes tan-and-green where jeans and a rain jacket were previously allowed, and long sleeves and a tie for everyday wear in some instances.

"He's made it very clear that he is a stickler for professionalism, and professionalism is partly a function of uniform appearance," Tyler said.

"Some of the laxities that crept in he's not as tolerant of, and he's going to call attention to some of those laxities," said Tyler, who noted that he himself was wearing a tie with his uniform because McDonnell dresses that way.

But the problems at the department, all agree, go beyond appearances.

In addition to the recent indictments of Tanaka and Carey, seven lower-ranking sheriff's officials have been convicted for their roles in thwarting the FBI investigation into brutality against inmates by deputies in the jails. Baca has not been indicted.

Tanaka and Carey each pleaded not guilty and were released on bail.

In a statement announcing the indictments, federal prosecutors said the allegations included "cover-ups, diversionary tactics, retribution and a culture generally reserved for Hollywood scripts."