Jim McDonnell has de-Tanakafied the L.A. Sheriff's Department. Will that be enough?

It's hard to think of someone more qualified to fix the L.A. County Sheriff's Department than Jim McDonnell, a former assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and chief of police in Long Beach. During his tenure in Long Beach he served on a commission that delved into beatings of jail inmates by L.A. County sheriff's deputies and made wide-ranging recommendations to revamp the Sheriff's Department's management, structure and oversight. He and his commission colleagues essentially, although obliquely, called for the ouster of Sheriff Lee Baca but reserved particular opprobrium for former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

Then, after Baca stepped down, McDonnell ran for sheriff against Tanaka and won, taking office on Dec. 1, 2014.

Now Tanaka is facing trial on obstruction of justice charges, and McDonnell has spent just over a year trying to consolidate post-Baca, post-Tanaka reforms. The department overhaul has been quiet but, at least on the organization chart, far-reaching: The top officials most closely associated with the former discredited regime are gone.

“The organization has a different tone,” McDonnell said recently, and that new tone was exemplified last year by the resignation of Assistant Sheriff Michael Rothans, following a Times report that he had purchased a stolen car that deputies had seized from a suspected gang member. Rothans had been a trusted part of McDonnell's effort to reboot the department, but he violated policy, and he was out.

If the sheriff's task were limited to undoing the Tanaka era, he'd be off to a good start. But he has weighty challenges that predate Baca, Tanaka, the beatings and the obstruction charges that have resulted in convictions of several deputies (and in Tanaka's trial, which is slated for next month).

He has jails that are outdated, poorly designed and ill-suited to the task of properly treating thousands of inmates, many of whom are sick or addicted and might be more effectively housed and treated elsewhere. Replacement costs are shockingly high, and critics — including this page — have argued that his plans show too little commitment to non-custodial alternatives.

Hiring and training practices that predate McDonnell may well leave him with some deputies who ought not to be wearing badges or carrying guns. And the department is beginning to get the same scrutiny and criticism that police agencies nationwide are receiving over questionable uses of deadly force. One case in point is the fatal shooting in 2014 (before McDonnell's tenure) of Noel Aguilar in Long Beach. The district attorney cleared the deputies of criminal charges last month, but a disturbing and widely-circulated video of the incident has prompted calls to reopen the investigation.

It is not yet clear whether McDonnell's reform vision is limited to a thorough de-Tanakafication of the department, or if instead it will embrace the sweeping and overdue reinvention of the criminal justice system now under discussion and underway to some degree around the nation.

There are some discouraging signals on that front. We are dismayed at McDonnell's hostile reaction to Proposition 47, the landmark California ballot measure that decreases penalties for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes. The sheriff acknowledges that instead of arresting suspects on misdemeanor charges, his deputies are often not arresting them at all. Yet he blames an uptick in crime not on his department's practices, but on the ballot measure.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl did not mention McDonnell by name at a board hearing on Proposition 47 last fall, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that she was talking at least partly about him when she noted that there was no evidence to support claims that the measure is increasing crime.

“I would really encourage those spreading this disinformation to reconsider and be more responsible,” Kuehl said.

So far, any tension between McDonnell and the Board of Supervisors is mostly of the friendly variety. But given the competition between the sheriff and the supervisors over money and power, the relationship bears watching.

More than once during her 2014 campaign for county supervisor, Kuehl argued that the board can and should exercise greater control over the sheriff by granting or withholding funds. Last year the board stripped the sheriff of his control over medical services in the jails. The supervisors also blocked McDonnell from hiring legal advisors who would be responsible to him and not to the county counsel, who is hired and fired by the board.

Meanwhile, according to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the counsel has begun making the case that the board has “supervisory authority over the sheriff and his department,” even though the sheriff is independently elected under the state Constitution.

“Some of this will be tested,” Ridley-Thomas told an audience at the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, “presumably in a court of law.”

This battle for authority is playing out in less-than-obvious ways. A series of public hearings last year on a still-unformed sheriff's oversight commission focused on the degree to which independent panelists would be able to compel production of use-of-force data and pressure the department to impose discipline and alter policy. What the supervisors are actually considering on Tuesday, however, is a commission appointed by and responsible to them, aided by an inspector general who also serves at their pleasure, helping them to keep an eye on the independently elected sheriff. It is the latest iteration of a power struggle, still a mostly polite one, between the new sheriff and a partially new board.

So which side do we root for? The question should instead be who, or what, will bring Los Angeles County a Sheriff's Department that protects safety on the streets and in the jails, constantly improves standards and performance and holds itself accountable for failures. It has been only a year, and McDonnell still deserves a bit of patience. For now.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 10, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A new era for L.A.'s sheriff - One year in, Jim McDonnell has de-Tanakafied the department. But there's much more to be done." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe