The last time an outsider was elected Los Angeles County sheriff, posses tracked bandits into the hills of Glendora, Charlie Chaplin had just hit movie screens and Angelenos were watching anxiously as World War I began in Europe.
Since the election of 1914, county voters have consistently favored Sheriff's Department insiders for the job.
But against a backdrop of scandal and crises in the agency, this year's race could upend that 100-year tradition.
One of the key questions voters must consider in Tuesday's primary is whether an outsider would be better at introducing reforms in the organization than someone steeped in its culture.
For the first time in recent memory, an outsider, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, is considered a front-runner for the job. And the five candidates who are department veterans have often been asked on the campaign trail how they can be trusted to bring change given their long histories within the organization.
With the election dominated by promises to increase public trust in the agency, the career sheriff's officials in the race have sought to distance themselves from the department's recent troubles, portraying themselves as reformers who would bring a fresh perspective to the job.
"For the last 15 years, I've been an outsider within my own organization because of all the corruption and mismanagement that's been going on," one of the candidates, Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers, said at one of the many debates that have dominated the campaign.
McDonnell dismissed such claims by his opponents at another forum.
"All insiders trying very hard to be outsiders," he said of his rivals.
The strategy by some department candidates to play up their credentials as outsiders — even while arguing that a true outsider lacks the institutional knowledge to bring change — underscores the damage inflicted on the department's image in recent years, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. It also highlights the uniqueness of this year's race.
"In most sheriff's elections in the last 100 years, being an insider was the key to winning," he said. "This is a real campaign."
The nonpartisan sheriff's election marks the county's first without an incumbent on the ballot in more than 50 years. Lee Baca threw the race wide open in January when he abruptly quit his effort to win a fifth four-year term. Seven career law enforcement officers are running.
At stake is the chance to lead one of the country's largest local law enforcement agencies at a crucial time in its history.
The new sheriff will head a department that has a $2.9-billion budget, more than 9,000 deputies and responsibility for patrolling vast portions of the county, including 42 cities and unincorporated areas, community colleges and transit operations. In addition, the agency provides security for the county's courts and runs the nation's largest jail system.
The winner will gain a national voice in shaping public safety policy but will also inherit a long list of challenges.
The next sheriff must build on efforts to reform the county's violent and teeming jails. He will have to handle continuing fallout from the FBI's criminal inquiry into jailhouse brutality and the U.S. Justice Department's separate civil rights investigation into alleged mistreatment of mentally ill inmates.
Other pressing issues include budget woes and sagging morale among rank-and-file deputies. In addition, the department must deal with accusations by the Justice Department that Antelope Valley deputies conducted searches and detentions that violated the constitutional rights of African American and Latino residents.
If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two vote-getters will face off in the general election in November.
The leading outside candidate is McDonnell, a career officer with the Los Angeles Police Department who rose to become the department's second in command before his appointment as Long Beach police chief in 2010.
McDonnell said he did not realize the extent of the Sheriff's Department's problems until he served on the county's Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence. The commission's landmark report in 2012 found "a persistent pattern of unnecessary and excessive use of force" in the jails and blasted the Sheriff's Department's leadership for failing to combat the problem.
"It's time for an outside perspective — some fresh eyes," McDonnell said.
He boasts a long list of heavyweight endorsements, including from Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and a majority on the Board of Supervisors.
Two internal candidates argue that they combine insider knowledge with an outsider's view of how to reform the institution.
Rogers, one of the department's four assistant sheriffs, has regularly told debate audiences how, as a new captain, he was asked to give an exclusive contract to a tow company that was supportive of high-ranking department officials. Rogers said he refused. He said years later he rejected a request to change the outcome of an internal investigation of a sergeant who pointed a pistol at another.
Rogers, who is also mayor of Lakewood, oversees the department's budget and recently spearheaded reforms following a Times investigation that found the department hired dozens of cops with histories of serious misconduct.
Retired sheriff's Cmdr. Bob Olmsted has also described himself as an outsider, pointing to his decision to publicly expose abuses inside the jails and to report his concerns to the FBI. Like Rogers and other department veterans in the race, Olmsted says his career within the department also gives him the institutional knowledge that will enable him to quickly pinpoint the problems and necessary fixes.
"I had the courage to take on the organization and take on the code of silence within this organization by going outside to the FBI and reporting the corruption," Olmsted said.
Olmsted and Rogers have repeatedly taken aim at another candidate, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, accusing him of fostering a culture that allowed wrongdoing.
The Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence blamed Tanaka for encouraging "deputies to push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities and [creating] an environment that discouraged accountability for misconduct." Last week, a federal prosecutor revealed in court that Tanaka is a subject of the ongoing federal investigation into the county's jails.
Tanaka has generally avoided responding to his rivals on the campaign trail. But he has defended his record as undersheriff and accused Baca of putting politics above the department's core mission.
"Never once did I condone or tolerate or encourage in any way, shape or form the use of excessive force or misconduct," Tanaka said at a recent debate.
Tanaka, who is also mayor of Gardena, has spent much of his campaign emphasizing the need to focus on making crime prevention and public safety a priority. He is a certified public accountant who managed the Sheriff's Department's budget for 11 years. He says his experience at either working in or supervising every unit in the department during his career makes him uniquely qualified to be the next sheriff.
James Hellmold, a 25-year department veteran who rose through the ranks from Baca's driver to assistant sheriff, has not shied away from calling himself an insider, but has also emphasized his work as a reformer. He was among a handful of brass tapped several years ago to oversee the department's response to jail abuse allegations. Since then, Hellmold has helped oversee sweeping reforms recommended by the commission on jail violence.
Baca has publicly described Hellmold — as well as Rogers — as qualified to take on the job of sheriff. At 46, Hellmold is among the youngest of the candidates and has vowed to modernize the department, particularly in combating cyber-crime.
"I want to bring some youthful energy into the Sheriff's Department," he said.
Times staff writer Cindy Chang contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times