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Two challengers in sheriff's race hope to buck tradition. One is backed by more money than the incumbent

Two challengers in sheriff's race hope to buck tradition. One is backed by more money than the incumbent
Retired Sheriff's Cmdr. Bob Lindsey, campaigning Friday at Nkechi African cafe in Inglewood, has more money behind him than the incumbent in the race for L.A. County sheriff. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Once you’re sheriff, you’re sheriff for life, or so the thinking goes about an elected position that often receives scant voter scrutiny.

Two challengers to Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell in Tuesday’s primary election want to break that tradition, arguing that crime is up, deputy morale is dangerously low, and McDonnell, an outsider who had never worn the tan-and-green uniform, has mismanaged the department.

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McDonnell was elected in 2014 to lead the nation’s largest sheriff’s department with a mandate to reshape a corrupt organization in the midst of a federal jail abuse probe that would ultimately lead to the conviction of numerous officials, including former Sheriff Lee Baca.

One of McDonnell’s challengers, retired Sheriff’s Cmdr. Bob Lindsey, is in the unusual position of being backed by more money than the incumbent. Lindsey raised about $330,000 and an independent group supporting him collected $410,000, putting him well past McDonnell’s intake of $586,000.

But experts think it would require even more funds — and a Baca-esque scandal — to unseat the sheriff, whose job has no term limits. Deputy grievances are unlikely to galvanize voters at large, analysts say.

Retired Sheriff’s Lt. Alex Villanueva, who’s supported by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and touts his 17 years as a street cop, has raised $27,000.

McDonnell, a 58-year-old former Los Angeles Police Department official, says his outsider status and experience at the top levels of law enforcement is crucial to implementing reforms, such as in the county’s vast jail system, which he oversees. Incidents of serious force by jailers has fallen dramatically under his tenure. And although McDonnell says low morale is a chronic problem in the stressful law enforcement profession, he believes there’s an upbeat attitude within his ranks.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell has raised $586,000 ahead of the primary Tuesday. A challenger is supported by about $740,000.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell has raised $586,000 ahead of the primary Tuesday. A challenger is supported by about $740,000. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

McDonnell’s challengers say there’s a darker mood inside the department.

“At our current pace, we will see the murder of a deputy within our custody facilities,” said Villanueva, who contends that jailers are now so restricted in how much force they can use that inmates are finding more opportunities to attack staff.

McDonnell acknowledged an increase in inmates throwing human waste at jailers, which he said is due to more violent state prison inmates being moved to the jails because of legislative mandates. He said life-threatening attacks on staff, like stabbings, are rare.

Villanueva, 55, of La Habra Heights, says he is the “progressive choice” who stood up to authorities early in his three-decade career and helped ban smoking in the jails. He says he would reorganize the department, including assigning civilians to more jobs, and would add thousands more officers for street duty.

Lindsey, 62, said he wants to enforce 2nd Amendment rights and pledged to smooth the process to obtain a concealed-firearm license. The Covina resident served 32 years in the department, including as captain over the professional standards division and most recently oversaw court security. He says many deputies are now being punished unjustly, discouraging proactive policing.

“They don’t want to be the first person to a call. They want someone else to be the first person to a call, because then that person gets in trouble for however they handled the situation,” Lindsey said.

The challengers have focused on a rise in crime during McDonnell’s term. From 2014 to 2017, violent crime rose 15% and property crime was up 11% in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department. Crime went up each year since McDonnell took office, except from 2016 to 2017, when violent crime dipped half a percentage point and property crime dropped 3%.

Department statistics comparing the first four months of 2018 to the same period last year show violent crime and property crime overall have continued to decrease.

Retired Sheriff's Lt. Alex Villanueva says he is the "progressive choice" for sheriff.
Retired Sheriff's Lt. Alex Villanueva says he is the "progressive choice" for sheriff. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

McDonnell said it’s normal for crime to fluctuate and that some of the increases could be due to Proposition 47, a measure that reduced some nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and has led to early releases.

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He said he rejects the idea that department policies should revert back to a system in which deputies would use more force and when inmates were more fearful.

Despite their slim chances of winning, the challengers have raised legitimate concerns about forced overtime and limits on training for deputies, issues the department will have to confront regardless of who is sheriff, the leaders of two deputies’ unions say.

“Deputies do not seem to have the tools necessary, and they’re overworked. You couple that with budget faux pas, and spending money on image instead of substance. That hurts the public and employees,” said Lt. Brian Moriguchi, president of the Professional Peace Officers Assn., which represents about 5,000 Sheriff’s Department members including sworn officers, custody assistants and crime analysts.

Earlier this year, the department projected a $40 million deficit, in large part due to personnel costs including overtime. McDonnell has been criticized for spending money on changing the color of deputies’ belt buckles and correcting a minor grammatical error on patrol cars at a time when the agency struggles to hire law enforcers. There are at least 564 officer vacancies, but deputies’ advocates say the current 9,400-member force needs to increase by at least 1,500.

McDonnell defended the cosmetic upgrades to uniforms and equipment as minor expenditures in a continuous series of improvements he’s making. He says the staffing shortage is a top priority and has added recruiters to his team.

Neither the Professional Peace Officers Assn. nor the Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents about 7,900 rank-and-file deputies, have endorsed a candidate, though both unions supported McDonnell in 2014.

Both of McDonnell’s challengers say they’d loosen policies requiring deputies to document minor uses of force, which they say has tied up officers in paperwork when they could be fighting crime or undergoing training. Both promise to continue reforms in the jails as mandated by federal settlement agreements.

In a curious wrinkle to the race, first reported by Variety, an independent group supporting Lindsey, Mothers for a Safe L.A. County, received $235,000 from Proxima Media LLC, whose CEO is listed as Hollywood producer Ryan Kavanaugh. The embattled founder of Relativity Media donated to sheriff’s candidates in the last election, including to Paul Tanaka, who is now in prison tied to the jail scandal.

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Kavanaugh once had a concealed-weapons permit, but no longer does. He declined to comment.

Lindsey says he has no knowledge of the payment to the outside group and does not pay attention to its fundraising. The other competitors are not supported by independent committees.

One of the candidates will need to receive more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff Nov. 6.

Lindsey says he’ll win outright Tuesday. Historically speaking, that’s unlikely.

Given the county’s vast population — and a relative lack of voter awareness of the sheriff’s election — a challenger would have to spend six to eight times more than an incumbent to begin to be a threat, said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University.

He cited a study conducted by the university this year showing public opinion of the Sheriff’s Department is higher than that of the Los Angeles Police Department — a positive association that will probably help McDonnell stay in place, he said.

“The necessary conditions to defeat a sheriff are so difficult that it hardly happens, and hasn’t happened for close to 100 years in L.A. County,” Guerra said.

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