O.C.'s street cop
With her tailored suits and thoughtful, confident demeanor, new Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens appears more like a polished corporate executive than a peace officer.
But make no mistake about it: There’s a lot of street cop in the new leader of California’s second-largest sheriff’s department.
Hutchens spent the early years of her career patrolling violent inner-city neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles, arresting gang members, racing to assist deputies in danger and, in one defining moment, shooting and killing a man carrying a handgun.
She married her training officer -- her partner in the 1980 fatal shooting -- and was once slapped with a disciplinary write-up for driving too fast to assist a deputy who was in trouble. She chose not to fight the discipline, deciding it actually reflected favorably on her.
In a recent interview in her spacious Santa Ana office, Hutchens said the 1,800 deputies of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department can expect an open, honest leader who understands the stressful nature of police work. Appointed nearly two weeks ago by county supervisors, Hutchens inherits a department reeling from the corruption indictment of former Sheriff Michael S. Carona and a scathing grand jury report about the shoddy performance of deputies in its largest jail.
“I think it’s important to have come up through the ranks and to have done all those jobs. I know when someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes about how they do their jobs,” Hutchens said. “You can’t take the experience away. You don’t forget where you came from.”
Born in 1955 in Monterey Park and raised in Long Beach, Hutchens had a middle-class suburban childhood. Her father was a construction worker, her mother an assembly-line worker.
There were signs at an early age that Hutchens was fiercely independent. At 5 and in the first grade, she insisted on making the 10-minute walk to school by herself, recalled her mother, Marilyn Mitchell, who nonetheless accompanied her daughter to school.
“She was always one of those go-getters,” her mother said.
She graduated from the sheriff’s academy in 1978, worked as a deputy at the Sybil Brand Institute women’s jail and transferred to work patrol in Lynwood, one of the department’s busiest and most dangerous assignments.
“Lynwood was just call after call after call: assaults with a deadly weapon, gang fights. Deputy shootings were not uncommon,” she said. “We literally took people to jail who had shot people over $1 gambling debts.”
On New Year’s Eve 1980, Hutchens and Deputy David Anderson were patrolling the Willowbrook neighborhood north of Compton about 9 p.m. when they heard gunfire. They could tell that more than one weapon was involved.
The deputies parked their patrol car on 115th Street and approached a house where they saw women in the kitchen cooking. Hutchens, 25, drew her handgun as she walked along the house toward a garage.
Hutchens said she saw a man outside the garage who appeared to have a gun in his hand.
She ordered him to drop it. Before she could confront that man, she looked into the garage and saw another man with a gun in his hand.
“Policia! Drop the gun,” she recalled saying.
The man pointed the weapon at her, Hutchens said. She fired her .38-caliber revolver three times. Anderson said he thought his partner had been hit, so he fired six rounds into the garage.
One of Hutchens’ bullets struck Jildardo Plasencia in the left side of his chest, killing him.
Anderson’s bullets hit Plasencia’s 3-year-old son, Jildardo Jr., in the buttocks, and a 15-year-old boy, Juan Macias, in both legs. Both survived.
Deputies later found a .22-caliber handgun in Jildardo Plasencia’s hand. It was not loaded.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office investigated the shooting and found it to have been justified.
The dead man’s family sued, alleging wrongful death. The family’s attorneys argued in a 1986 trial that Plasencia was seated at the back of the garage and did not point a weapon at either deputy.
They told a jury that Hutchens and Anderson panicked and opened fire.
Plasencia family lawyers R. Samuel Paz and Gilbert Varela said the lack of gunpowder burns indicated Hutchens was much farther from the victim than she had testified. They said she and Anderson had no reason to fire. County lawyers said blood spatter on Plasencia’s gun proved he was pointing it at her when he was shot.
A jury awarded the family nearly $1.4 million in damages -- then the largest police misconduct verdict in California. The family agreed to a $1-million settlement after the county appealed.
The family’s lawyers said they still believe Hutchens testified falsely about the events that night.
“Oh, she lied, definitely lied. There is no way that she couldn’t remember,” said Varela, who said the shooting and her testimony should have raised questions about her qualifications to be Orange County’s sheriff.
Hutchens said the shooting was tragic but justified.
“The outcome -- I was stunned,” she said of the jury’s verdict. “I believed that what I did was right. I don’t think the jury connected with me. They felt this family needed help.”
One of the jurors, Beverly Provo, said the evidence left her with the impression that deputies “just busted in and started shooting.” She said sympathy for the Plasencia family played a role in deliberations.
“It was really a tragedy,” Provo said during a recent interview in her Inglewood home. “I felt so bad for them because they lost their father.”
The verdict’s sting lingered, Hutchens said. For years, she had a recurring dream in which she faced a life-and-death situation and her weapon would not fire.
“It was hard to talk about for a while,” she said. “Taking somebody’s life does impact you.”
During at an interview at his home in Phoenix, Anderson said Plasencia left his partner with no choice but to shoot.
“Pointing an empty gun at a cop is right up there with things not to do,” he said. “He must not have realized she was a deputy.”
In the months that followed the shooting, Hutchens and Anderson became close, drawn together by the New Year’s Eve shooting and their stressful assignment.
They married in August 1981, less than two years after the shooting. They divorced in 1994.
Anderson, who retired as a sergeant, blames himself for the failed marriage.
“In those days I was dealing with stress with the help of some alcohol,” he said.
Hutchens later married Larry Hutchens, a retired assistant chief with the Los Angeles Unified School District police. They live in Dana Point.
Shortly after the shooting, Hutchens was assigned to work patrol shifts without a partner. At one point, she decided she wanted only a female partner, a request her supervisor denied. Women could partner only with male deputies, she was told.
Incensed, she wrote then-Sheriff Sherman Block and argued that it was a contradiction to allow women to work patrol shifts alone but insist that their partners must be men. She later became part of one of the department’s first two-woman patrol units.
“I loved it. It was the best time of my career,” she said of her patrol work.
Hutchens rose through the ranks of the Sheriff’s Department, working as a sergeant, lieutenant and eventually captain in charge of the Norwalk station, where she was responsible for dozens of deputies. When her deputies were involved in shootings, she said, she knew what they were going through.
“I always just ask them, ‘Are you OK?’ ” she said. “I always make sure they have someone with them and they’re not put in a room alone.
“You can’t assume cops are so tough that if they’re involved in a shooting they’ll be OK. Some are. Some aren’t,” she said.
She understands that patrol work can be gritty. She wants deputies who are proactive, as she was.
“If I looked in someone’s personnel file and didn’t see anything in there, I’d wonder, ‘What have you been doing? '" Hutchens said. “I’d expect to see some citizen complaint or use-of-force or something.”
When she retired from the Los Angeles County department last year, Hutchens was a division chief in charge of the department’s Office of Homeland Security. Among other things, she was responsible for the department’s SWAT and gang enforcement units. One of her top assistants was Lt. J.P. Harris, with whom she’d taken her first patrol ride-along.
“She’s a leader. She listens to people. She’s not afraid to have people around her who are smarter or have better ideas,” Harris said. “She’s got everything that department needs. They are so lucky.”