Sheriff candidates step up rhetoric at second debate

Sheriff candidates step up rhetoric at second debate
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced in January he would not seek a fifth term, launching a heated race to replace him. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The candidates for Los Angeles County sheriff sharpened their attacks Wednesday night, accusing each other of mismanagement and opportunism in front of a Van Nuys audience gathered for their second debate.

Assistant Sheriff Jim Hellmold, one of two candidates tapped to run by former Sheriff Lee Baca, called out former Cmdr. Bob Olmsted more than once. Before retiring, Olmsted oversaw the department's most troubled jails. He has described himself as a whistle-blower who tried to alert top brass about inmate abuse and aggressive deputy "gangs" but was ignored.

"You either ignored gang activity … or you were totally ineffective," Hellmold said.

At another point, Hellmold seemed to make a veiled attack on the two candidates in the race who come from other law enforcement agencies: "When I see troubles at other organizations, I don't see opportunities for myself."


Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, who has a list of big-name endorsements, deflected that criticism, saying he had experience reforming police forces and could do the same at the Sheriff's Department. He cited his work fixing problems at the LAPD after the Rampart corruption scandal, and making improvements within the Long Beach Police Department when he took over there.

"I have dealt with being an outsider before," he said.

McDonnell, widely considered to be a front-runner in the race, mostly kept a cordial tone. But he was a target for the other candidates, who brought up officer-involved shootings and racially disparate policing, concerns that have surfaced in Long Beach.

Many of the candidates promised to improve the department's hiring standards. A Times investigation last year found that the agency gave jobs to dozens of officers who had histories of serious misconduct.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka said the agency had to hire only "the very best of what society has to offer."

Tanaka had the most vocal supporters in the crowd, including many wearing his campaign T-shirts. The former undersheriff, ousted by Baca amid allegations of mismanagement, presented himself in a way that contrasted with how he has been portrayed by colleagues and a county blue ribbon commission.

In one instance, he told Wednesday's audience that he had a proven track record of being responsive to civilian oversight. But while testifying in 2012 before the county commission that examined problems with jail abuse, he acknowledged that he and others had shortcomings in implementing the reforms suggested by the department's civilian monitors.

Tanaka also said that he chose to retire from the department so he could run for sheriff, but in an interview with The Times soon after his retirement, he said he was pushed out by Baca.

All of the candidates agreed that stronger civilian oversight was needed for the department. But Patrick Gomez, a retired lieutenant who has twice run unsuccessfully for sheriff, strayed from his opponents in saying he did not support the newly created inspector general tasked with monitoring the agency, saying the role came with no real authority.

"He cannot do anything, so that's a waste of taxpayer dollars," Gomez said.

At least two more debates are scheduled before the June vote.