Sheriff's officials are spending $300,000 on items they say would make deputies look more professional in their jobs and could help make them safer.
But the taxpayer dollars won't go toward tools such as higher-quality ballistic vests, backup guns or body cameras, all of which are optional items that deputies have to pay for on their own.
The sheriff says the change is important to maintaining a professional look for deputies on the job, but the move has generated criticism among some rank-and-file deputies and others who argue that it's a misuse of money at a time when the department is struggling to deal with more fundamental problems than the appearance of its street cops.
Officials with the union that represents the bulk of the department's 9,100 deputies note that the agency is facing a chronic staff shortage and a recurring budget deficit. For the past several years, the department has been keeping about 1,000 professional staff and 300 deputy positions unfilled so that it can overcome a yearly $250-million shortfall. As a result, deputies are often required to work back-to-back shifts.
"This [expenditure] is something that would be better suited to a department that's running like a well-oiled machine, but not a department that's in turmoil," said Det. Ron Hernandez, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
McDonnell defended the changes, saying the coordinated gold-colored buckles, belt snaps, baton rings and key holders would "finish off the uniform" and better convey to a suspect that a deputy is in control.
"The first impression somebody gets of one of our deputies in the field is what they look like when they approach. Are they squared-away looking? Do they have their gear in place? Are they physically fit?" McDonnell said in a recent interview. He said a suspect might be thinking: "Am I gonna run? Am I gonna fight? What am I gonna do?"
"Often our deputies are in situations where they're all by themselves, and they need to exude command presence," McDonnell explained.
The brass facelift probably ranks as one of the more obscure changes by McDonnell, who’s worked to reform the department after a jail abuse scandal toppled his predecessor,
The department recently nodded to the grumbling over belt buckles in its inaugural issue of Inside the LASD, a newsletter designed to address rumors circulating among its 18,000 employees. The publication also provided information stemming from other frustrations commonly aired by deputies, including the disciplinary process, a Taser shortage, and the persistent vacancies and budget constraints in the department.
"A consistent uniform appearance is part of the tactical package," the newsletter says, alongside photos of brass belt buckles. "The first impression you give can add to your credibility and your safety."
Sgt. Mike Ramirez, the department's uniform coordinator, said he's seen first-hand how a messy uniform can invite violence. He described a scenario in which one of his former partners, who looked "disheveled" and typically wore a more casual style of uniform than he did, was singled out by a suspect for a fight.
"This guy could have fought me instead, but as I look back, it all makes sense. My partner wasn't as professional-looking as I was," Ramirez said.
The department has already spent $100,000 out of its general fund for the belt buckles and snaps, with an additional $200,000 in line to be spent next fiscal year on baton rings and key holders, said department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.
Deputies are expected to obtain the new gear at either one of two department facilities, one in Whittier and the other in Castaic, during their work hours.
Not since former Sheriff Sherman Block changed deputies' name plates from black to gold in the 1990s has there been a cosmetic modification to the rank-and-file's everyday uniform (deputies' helmets, updated last year, are worn only in heightened circumstances). Baca, who succeeded Block, made deputies temporarily wear a millennial badge in 2000, Nishida said.
Officers in the Los Angeles Police Department — where McDonnell served 29 years — are required to wear silver belt buckles that match their predominantly silver-toned badges, said Officer Norma Eisenman, a department spokeswoman.
Sheriff's Lt. Brian Moriguchi, who serves as president of the Professional Peace Officers Assn., which represents higher-level Sheriff's Department staff as well as custody assistants, said the buckle switch has been raising eyebrows.
"The whole thing would be no big deal if the sheriff corrected all the other things wrong with our department," said Moriguchi, citing the need for more deputies in the field and a more efficient use of limited funds. "But it becomes a big deal because people look at how you haven't changed all the other things except the color of our belt buckle."
Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Scroggin responded that the change was important because uniform standards "had become lax."
"This was apparent during major events and it diminished our professionalism and became problematic from a tactical standpoint," he said.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors oversees the department's overall budget of $3 billion, but the sheriff has discretion to choose how to spend the department's general funds.
"With a $3 billion budget, the sheriff is entrusted by the voters of Los Angeles County with the flexibility to allocate department resources where he feels necessary — and I trust his judgement as to administrative matters under his authority," Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement.
The other four county supervisors declined to comment.
Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies police administration, said that mismatched pieces on an officer's uniform could have an effect on the officer's respectability.
"But, overall, it feels a bit like a stretch," Haberfeld said of McDonnell's plans. "Ultimately, it is always a matter of priorities and in my opinion, although I understand his concerns, I would probably opt for more manpower over a change of the hardware."
McDonnell said he understood how belt buckles could rank as a relatively minor concern. He also lamented the challenges facing his budget and his irritation over not being able to deploy enough deputies to serve the public.
But he maintained that an attractive uniform serves a deep purpose, representing the pride and imagery of an organization.
"It's professionalism, at the end of the day," he said.