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Outsider leads L.A. County sheriff's race

Law EnforcementLee BacaCrimeLos Angeles Police DepartmentLaws and LegislationFBILos Angeles County Sheriff's Department
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell takes a big lead in the L.A. County sheriff's race
If Jim McDonnell falls short of 50% of the vote for sheriff, he'll probably face a runoff with Paul Tanaka

After a series of scandals at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, an outside candidate promising to reform the beleaguered agency was leading in the race for sheriff, according to early returns.

Jim McDonnell, the Long Beach police chief and the only major candidate without deep ties to the department, jumped out to a 3-to-1 lead over his nearest rival, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

"The results show that the voters, the public, looked at this situation and thought a fresh outside perspective would be beneficial in moving the organization forward," McDonnell said about the preliminary results.

If McDonnell does not win more than 50% of the vote, he will probably face Tanaka in a Nov. 4 runoff. Tanaka's second-place showing would come despite recent disclosures that he is a subject of a federal investigation in connection with an ongoing jails probe. He also faced intense criticism from other candidates, who said he was partly responsible for problems plaguing the Sheriff's Department in recent years.

"We feel very confident in the campaign Paul ran," said Reed Galen, a Tanaka spokesman. "As the evening progresses we hope to see the support he's garnered reflected in the results."

The race is considered one of the most important in the history of the Sheriff's Department. Longtime Sheriff Lee Baca abruptly retired in January, a month after federal criminal charges were filed against 18 current and former sheriff's deputies accused of beating jail inmates or trying to obstruct the FBI in an investigation into the county's jail system.

For the last century, voters have elected a sheriff from inside the department. But in this election, even some insiders in the seven-man field positioned themselves as outsiders.

The new sheriff will head a department with a $2.9-billion annual budget and more than 9,000 deputies. In addition to overseeing the policing of 42 cities and unincorporated areas, the sheriff runs the nation's largest jail system.

Baca left a mixed legacy. He reached out to minority communities and emphasized education for jail inmates, but his distant management style allowed the problems in the jails to spiral out of control, critics say. Baca was also accused of cronyism, including launching criminal investigations on behalf of well-connected donors.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department accused sheriff's deputies of engaging in widespread unlawful searches of homes, improper detentions and unreasonable force against African Americans and Latinos who received low-income subsidized housing in the Antelope Valley. The department's personnel practices also have been called into question after the hiring of dozens of deputies with criminal records.

Miriam Krinsky, who headed the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence and has endorsed McDonnell, said the department faces a crucial moment, much as the Los Angeles Police Department did after the Rampart scandal in the late 1990s.

"Even with positive momentum, a lot still remains to be done," Krinsky said. "The culture of the department really needs to be redefined."

Before Baca's retirement, several challengers had emerged as the four-term sheriff weakened under the weight of successive scandals. Tanaka, whom Baca had pushed into retirement followingproblems in the jails, was running against his former boss, as was Bob Olmsted, a retired sheriff's commander who characterizes himself as a whistle-blower.

During his farewell news conference, Baca described two assistant sheriffs, James Hellmold and Todd Rogers, as highly qualified to succeed him.

McDonnell, who earlier had decided not to challenge Baca, jumped in after Baca's exit, transforming the race into a battle between a seasoned outsider and Sheriff's Department insiders trying to distance themselves from the problems of the past.

Besides McDonnell and LAPD Det. Lou Vince, the other five candidates were department veterans. At debates, Tanaka, Hellmold, Rogers, Olmsted and Patrick Gomez fielded questions about whether they could change an organization after spending decades within it.

Although some of his opponents have pointed to his lack of experience with jails, McDonnell cited his service on the citizens' commission, which issued an influential set of recommendations for improving the county jails. He has promised to appoint top aides from within the department.

A Boston native, McDonnell joined the LAPD at age 21. As second-in-command to Chief William J. Bratton, McDonnell, 54, helped implement a federal consent decree that grew largely out of the Rampart scandal. In Long Beach, where he has been chief since 2010, he is popular among the rank-and-file but has faced criticism for an increase in officer-involved shootings.

Known as a detail-oriented manager, Tanaka carried perhaps the heaviest baggage as Baca's former No. 2. On the witness stand last month in the trial of a sheriff's deputy, he admitted that he is a subject of an ongoing obstruction-of-justice investigation.

Still, Tanaka, 55, remained a formidable candidate. As a longtime councilman and now mayor of Gardena, he is an old hand at politics as well as law enforcement.

As one of four assistant sheriffs, Hellmold, 46, supervises patrol and detective operations. After serving as Baca's driver in the late 1990s, he rose quickly within the department. He touted his connections to minority communities, including his work with youth sports teams in Compton and the endorsements he has received from black and Latino leaders. Of the veteran sheriff's officials, he was the least apt to distance himself from the department, saying he was "an insider 100%."

Hellmold's campaign also had a celebrity quotient. On Monday, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who earlier had donated $1,500, tweeted a note about Hellmold to his 10.2 million followers, with a link to Hellmold's website.

Rogers, 52, took a different tack, portraying himself as an outsider in the place where he has worked for nearly 30 years. Early in his career, he declined an invitation to get a tattoo and join a deputy clique, he has said. Rogers— who oversees budget, personnel, training and technical services operations — is also mayor of Lakewood.

Olmsted, a retired commander, went to the FBI and the Los Angeles Times with information about the culture of excessive force at the jails. Olmsted, 63, has said he did not have the authority to remove the captain he believed was at the root of the problem.

Vince, the LAPD detective, and Gomez, a retired sheriff's lieutenant, ran relatively low-profile campaigns and failed to raise significant cash to effectively reach out to county voters.

cindy.chang@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Law EnforcementLee BacaCrimeLos Angeles Police DepartmentLaws and LegislationFBILos Angeles County Sheriff's Department
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