Block Faces Only Token Opposition From 3 in Sheriff’s Contest

Times Staff Writer

For the last 54 years, the path to becoming Los Angeles County’s sheriff has passed first through the undersheriff’s office--a journey only three men have made.

And chances are remote that any of the three candidates challenging Sheriff Sherman Block’s reelection bid to the nonpartisan office will interrupt that line of succession when voters go to the polls June 3.

Block and his two immediate predecessors, Peter J. Pitchess and Eugene Biscailuz, all served as undersheriffs before moving up to the top job, and Block and Biscailuz were appointed sheriff to fill unexpired terms before winning election on their own.


Block, 61, faces only token opposition from Pasadena retailing firm president Lance Lukenbill, UCLA custodian Joseph G. Senteno and former Compton Police Detective Saul E. Lankster.

Bucking Trend

“We’re bucking the trend,” Lukenbill, 31, said of his candidacy. “These guys are appointed by their predecessors, and the voters--through their apathy--keep reelecting them. They see the incumbent and vote for him because it’s safe.”

Actually the Board of Supervisors appoints a new sheriff when the incumbent leaves office before his term expires, but the recommendation of the outgoing sheriff is a powerful endorsement.

Block, who has been sheriff for four years, carries into this campaign endorsements from virtually every organization of law enforcement officers in the county, every member of the Los Angeles City Council and the county Board of Supervisors, over 400 elected officials in the county and the county AFL-CIO.

In his frequent talks to community and civic groups, he emphasizes his concern over substance abuse, “the greatest threat facing us today as a society.”

Serious Problems

That threat shows up in the overcrowded county jail system, where Block said a recent survey indicated that perhaps 80% of the inmates abuse alcohol and drugs, making that abuse a direct contributor to one of the most serious problems facing the sheriff: squeezing more than 20,000 inmates into a jail system designed to accommodate 11,800.

“We’re sleeping them in the cells, and every corridor is lined with beds,” Block said. “Every recreation room has beds. Chapels all have beds.”

The jail staff is considering the possibility of converting storage areas into sleeping rooms.

Along with looking at every available square foot as a possible bunk site, Block and a committee for the American Civil Liberties Union have developed several proposals to reduce the jail population, including releasing various misdemeanor suspects under a variety of programs.

He would also get 1,000 new beds if Proposition 52, the jail bond proposal on the June 3 ballot, passes. Yet, Block said, the additional beds do not represent a gain.

Some Changes

“In fact, we’re staying behind,” he said. “The simple fact is that the system itself can never do enough to solve the problem. There have to be some changes out in society, especially in the area of substance abuse.”

Between 1979 and 1985, Block, and Pitchess before him, made “real efforts to comply” with federal court orders setting standards for the jail, ACLU attorney John Hagar said.

“They’re not meeting the court-ordered standards now because they have too many inmates,” Hagar said. “This is a societal problem that will be solved at the level of the Board of Supervisors.”

Lukenbill, who has no law enforcement experience, said that as sheriff he would be “very outspoken” in finding out “where, when and how we’ll build the facilities to keep people in jail.”

He has also raised the only serious charge against Block by stating at a press conference that as undersheriff, Block had received a departmental reprimand for suppressing evidence in a drug investigation involving Block’s daughter, a sheriff’s deputy.

Charge Denied

“The Lukenbill charge is false on its face,” Block said. “Not only was I not reprimanded as undersheriff, I’ve been here 30 years, and I don’t think you can find a reprimand in my file.”

Senteno, 39, of Lennox criticizes the sheriff for “not doing a sufficient job of supervising deputies.” He cited a 1982 incident, when deputies called in a phony complaint to gain entry to a Duarte home, where a pregnant woman was shot and her unborn child died.

Lankster, who could not be reached to be interviewed, is a former Compton detective who was fired in 1977 after being accused of submitting a false claim for overtime pay. The City of Compton, however, later settled a lawsuit brought by Lankster by paying him $126,700.

In 1985, Lankster was sentenced to a 120-day jail term for selling false driving school diplomas from his WE-STAND-N-LINE-FOR-U Driving School, which offered court-approved safety classes for traffic violators.