Why Voters Aren't the Best Judge of Sheriffs

Joseph D. McNamara, former police chief of San Jose, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University

The scandals raining down on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as its leader, Sherman Block, seeks a fifth term pointedly illustrate the worst way to select a law-enforcement chief executive.

Shortly after becoming police chief of San Jose, I met Peter J. Pitchess, then sheriff of Los Angeles County, at a law-enforcement conference. Half-jokingly, I said that, though being police chief had its difficult moments, at least I didn't have to run for office. Pitchess replied, "You run every day. I run once every four years."

True, at any moment, I could have been fired, without notice, by the city manager, who served at the pleasure of the mayor and city council. My job strictly depended upon how the San Jose Police Department performed, not upon vote counts. The payoff of such an arrangement is that the public gets better policing when elected officials can hold the head of a police agency accountable.

Pitchess felt the same way and had run on a platform to change the sheriff's position to an appointive one. He changed his mind after winning the election. He soon realized that he needed the clout engendered by votes to deal with the Board of Supervisors. And, indeed, the county sheriff does have political clout, which is one reason why all five supervisors have endorsed Block for reelection.

It is also the reason why the supervisors are unable to exercise necessary oversight over his Sheriff's Department. The sheriff is in the cat-bird's seat. He's a powerful politician who doesn't suffer from the low esteem that Americans generally have for politicians. Rather, he is viewed as a police leader and is the beneficiary of the public's currently favorable regard for cops. Yet, had the department's scandals, previous and current, plagued a big-city police chief, that chief long ago would have been looking for a job.

In the late 1980s, for example, some L.A. County deputy sheriffs assigned as "elite" narcotics detectives were, in reality, cop gangsters. Over a period of years, they had robbed drug dealers of more than $1 million, planted evidence and routinely committed perjury. Eventually, 27 deputies were convicted of various felonies; because of flaws in the investigation, it is safe to say than many escaped arrest.

An anonymous letter complaining about lavish lifestyles of deputies stealing drug money triggered the case. Later, it was learned that the letter had been written by a civilian employee apparently terrified of violating the department's code of silence but sickened by the corruption. It was months before the sheriff's brass got serious about investigating the letter, finally seeking help from federal authorities, who gathered the significant evidence.

The Sheriff's Department duly denounced the drug corruption and promised reform, but it was only few years later that another scandal popped up. In 1992, the Kolts Report documented a pattern of excessive force and brutality in the department, as well as racism and a breakdown of discipline. James G. Kolts, head of the investigation, was hardly a cop hater. A 67-year-old conservative Republican, he had been appointed a judge by Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Supervisors who had ordered the report accepted promises of reform from the department and its leader. They were not kept, but that didn't horribly upset the supervisors. They were wary of making an enemy of a sheriff who easily wins reelection and whose political support is valuable to them. Of course, they have no legal authority to give the sheriff orders.

The price is yet more scandals, the latest involving deputies allegedly encouraging jail trusties to beat suspected child molesters, padded contracts for jail food and alleged special treatment of celebrities. The only way to prevent such misconduct is to create a climate in which the value system of rank-and-file deputies rejects the code of silence and accepts that not reporting crimes by other cops is a firing offense. In addition, supervisors have to be held strictly accountable for not preventing corruption they should have detected.

In defending his management in the face of continuing setbacks, Block has frequently said that he, like big-city police chiefs, will also be held accountable--but it will be by the voters of Los Angeles County. It's a nice sound bite but a meaningless comparison.

Voters electing sheriffs do not choose from a list of qualified candidates compiled after an exhaustive national search. Since it costs a lot of money to run for any elected office, potential contributors are not inclined to fund a relative unknown running against an incumbent who is likely to win and remember who supported him and who did not.

This is precisely the problem with electing sheriffs. The sheriff doesn't necessarily have to be a good manager and leader to keep his job. Instead, he has to be politically adept and a good fund raiser, skills that frequently conflict with running a professional police agency. The need to raise campaign funds may jeopardize the impartiality and professionalism that a law-enforcement executive is required to exhibit.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit organization made up of police leaders throughout the United States, promotes a selection process followed by many cities. A police chief is chosen on merit and given a five-year renewable contract with clearly stated duties and procedures for removal for nonperformance. This provides reasonable protection from improper political influence over law-enforcement decisions while providing for appropriate oversight of police practices by elected superiors.

Adopting this model for California's sheriffs would require changing the state Constitution. There are 58 reasons why this will not happen. California's sheriffs and their political allies like the system that just about guarantees the incumbent a lifetime job. Local politicians and the state legislators are no more likely to support a statewide initiative to change the process than are the county supervisors to call for the ouster of an incumbent sheriff.

Block's courage in overcoming serious illnesses and maintaining a demanding work ethic serves as a model for all. In all likelihood, the voters will give him another term in June, scandals or no scandals. It isn't as if replacing him would change the system and make a new incumbent any more accountable.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World