Todd Rogers saw his life before him, and things looked pretty good. He had completed his student teaching and had been offered a job teaching social studies and coaching the junior varsity girls softball team at Carson High, his alma mater.
"It was all coming together," he said.
Then he went on a ride-along with Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, and suddenly things changed. "The excitement, the knowledge the deputies had," he said. "I was completely enamored."
Goodbye classroom, hello patrol car.
Now after 29 years in the Sheriff's Department, where he has risen to assistant sheriff, Rogers is running for the top job in a department trying to recover from scandal after scandal, ranging from federal indictments of deputies in a jail abuse investigation to illegal searches and detentions of minorities in the Antelope Valley. The department has come under fire for hiring deputies with serious misconduct in their backgrounds and others who had ties to department officials.
Despite his rise to the department's top ranks, Rogers is working to distance himself from former Sheriff Lee Baca, the man who promoted and praised him and whom he is now trying to replace.
On the election trail, he portrays himself as someone who was never part of the clique responsible for the problems — an insider who was really an outsider. If there were a criticism of him, it would be that he was too by-the-book, he said.
"In the last 15 years, a lot of us have been outsiders in our department," said Rogers, dressed in a starched white shirt, yellow tie and gray suit.
He also defends the department. "It's not nearly as screwed up as people think it is," he said. "It's exponentially better than it was before."
About 13 months ago, Rogers was promoted, bypassing the rank of chief and leapfrogging from commander to assistant sheriff, effectively putting him just below the sheriff. Despite the move, he said, he and Baca didn't get along.
"I did a lot of soul-searching when I took the job, but I didn't sell my soul," Rogers said. "I was clearly a Hail Mary for Baca, trying to save his incumbency."
The weekend before the sheriff's resignation announcement in January, Rogers and his wife, a former deputy, discussed whether he should challenge his boss. "There was a good chance I would have run," he said.
Baca, he said, was a visionary when it came to law enforcement. "One of his mistakes is he trusted the wrong people," Rogers said.
One of those people, Rogers said, was former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who served as Baca's top aide and who is also running for sheriff. In an interview, Rogers aimed harsh criticism at Tanaka.
When he was promoted to assistant sheriff, Rogers moved into Tanaka's old office. He twice had the office swept for listening devices. "I didn't trust him," Rogers said.
He also was worried that another law enforcement agency had planted bugs as part of an investigation into the department.
Rogers said he would quit if the former undersheriff were elected.
"If they vote for Tanaka, I've lost all faith in humanity," he said. "I can't understate the damage he's done to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department."
Reed Galen, Tanaka's campaign consultant, responded by saying: "It seems to me that the only thing we can be sure of is that Todd Rogers is not going to be the next sheriff of Los Angeles County. His negative attitude during the course of this campaign and in particular when it comes to Paul is manifesting itself because he understands that his chances of finishing in the top two is nonexistent."
After a panel appointed by the county Board of Supervisors to investigate allegations of excessive force in the jails released its report, Baca appointed Rogers to implement many of the suggested changes. The report also said Tanaka had helped foster a culture of abuse in the jails.
Rogers is also angry with Baca, who during his resignation announcement said Rogers was one of two men in the department qualified to replace him.
Baca, according to Rogers, said he would raise money for him and James Hellmold, another assistant sheriff running for the top job. "He hasn't done a thing for me," Rogers said. "He hasn't raised a dime." Hellmold said Baca hadn't raised money for him either.
The race for sheriff isn't the first time Rogers has gone before voters, having served 13 years as a City Council member in Lakewood, where he is now mayor. He said he would step down if elected sheriff.
A real estate website recently ranked the city he oversees as the most boring in the state.
"I'm officially the most boring mayor in California, and I'm really proud of it," he said. "I want to make the Sheriff's Department the most boring law enforcement agency in the country."
Rogers also founded the Lakewood Education Foundation, which has given $270,000 in grants for teachers in the city to use in classrooms.
All five Lakewood council members have endorsed him, as have the seven elected officials in Carson, where he grew up and served as captain.
Rogers said that in the past he had been encouraged to run not only for sheriff but also for state Assembly. He recently changed his voter registration from Republican to independent in anticipation the sheriff's race.
Rogers said that if elected he would institute community policing throughout the department, much like he did as commander of the Carson station. "I want to change the way we do law enforcement in the county," he said.
Rogers served on a federal advisory committee on community policing and worked with the state peace officers training commission when it decided to rewrite its curriculum on the subject.
"He was one of the people we turned to because of his knowledge and experience," said Joe Brann, a member of the group's executive committee.
Rogers said he'd also try to work with community groups to use a holistic team approach to try to keep young offenders out of trouble, a tactic that was successful in Carson, where crime dropped 15% under his watch.
Those days as a teacher stick with him, and he says he has become an educator within the department.
And if the wrong person is elected? "Who knows," he said. "I may go back."
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