At a closed-door debate in front of rank-and-file deputies, the candidates for Los Angeles County Sheriff acknowledged that the department must be reformed, but blamed management for the problems plaguing the agency.
In a recording of the members-only union event obtained by The Times, the candidates mostly took a diplomatic tone with the deputies, and at times served up the kind of red meat not often heard in front of general audiences.
Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who has been criticized for helping foster a culture of abuse inside the jails, criticized the department's inmate education program.
"Deputies should not be teaching inmates how to read while they should be manning security posts, OK?" he said, prompting loud cheers.
In a statement to The Times, Tanaka said he wasn't opposed to educating inmates "as long as it does not take away from the limited resources which are needed to run the jails and protect the public."
In interviews afterward, the other candidates took aim at Tanaka, who seemed to be the crowd favorite based on applause. His opponents said Tanaka's comment showed his shortsightedness about the role education can play in keeping inmates from re-offending after they are released.
"To show that lack of compassion for people who can't read is exactly why I'm running," Assistant Sheriff Jim Hellmold said.
The candidates acknowledged during the debate, which took place last week, that the recent federal indictments against deputies and reports of poor hiring show that reform is needed. But they also assured the audience that they believed that a great majority of deputies follow policy.
Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers told the deputies that he took exception with some outside criticisms of the department. Some time after Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell promised to "restore that shine and that luster to the badge," Rogers said: "Others talk about our badge being tarnished. With all due respect to all of them, my star is just as shiny as it used to be, and so is yours."
"This is an amazing time and an amazing race. We have deputies doing what they're told to do and they get indicted by the federal government ... the L.A. Times keeps telling us that the Sheriff's Department needs a new leader, someone from the outside with a fresh set of eyes," said Rogers, one of the two subordinates that outgoing Sheriff Lee Baca tapped to succeed him. "Instead of a fresh set of eyes, our department needs someone with an experienced and credible set of eyes."
In an interview with The Times, Rogers defended his stance, saying that during his career with the Sheriff's Department he fought corruption from within.
All of the candidates for sheriff participated in the debate, except for Patrick Gomez, a retired lieutenant who has twice run for sheriff and lost. This year marks the first sheriff's election in recent memory without an incumbent on the ballot. Last month, Baca, who had been sheriff for four terms and was preparing to run for a fifth, abruptly stepped down amid a string of scandals.
Of the candidates at the debate, former Cmdr. Bob Olmsted took the hardest line with the deputies, warning those in attendance that "if you like the way things are, if you're not ashamed of the corruption that's going on in this department ... you're not welcome on my team and I don't need your support."
Before retiring, Olmsted was in charge of some of the sheriff's most troubled jails. He said he tried to alert top brass about inmate abuse and aggressive deputy cliques. He has said that because he was ignored, he took his concerns to the FBI and the media.
Officials from the union that hosted the debate have been openly hostile with the sheriff's current civilian monitors. During the debate, McDonnell told union members that transparency and independent oversight should not be feared.
"People will try to help us if they know what we're facing," he said.
The debate was held at the county's Hall of Administration. In a statement, the president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs did not address why it was closed to the media and the public, saying that the union "arranged the sheriff's candidates forum for our members to hear directly from the seven candidates"
None of the candidates expressed any significant policy opinions that contradicted their public statements. Much of the forum centered on pet issues for the rank-and-file, such as eliminating an unpopular overtime reduction plan.
At times, the debate grew awkward for the two candidates who come from other departments. Los Angeles Police Det. Lou Vince was asked whether he believed the Sheriff's Department was the best trained and most effective law enforcement agency in the country.
After some laughs from the audience, he said: "Of course I'm gonna say yes. I know where I am."