L.A. County Sheriff-elect Jim McDonnell has his work cut out for him

Surrounded by some of Los Angeles County’s most powerful politicians, Jim McDonnell gave a victory speech that marveled at how far he had come from a working-class Boston neighborhood to lead the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.

But the prized position he had just captured by a 50-point margin in this week’s election will be a heavy burden. As the first L.A. County sheriff in a century to be elected from outside the department, McDonnell faces the steep challenge of changing the agency’s insular culture.

Under former Sheriff Lee Baca, who retired in January, the department developed a reputation for brutalizing jail inmates, basing promotions on campaign contributions and tolerating deputy cliques reminiscent of street gangs. Paul Tanaka, the retired undersheriff who McDonnell defeated in Tuesday’s runoff election, was a top administrator during that time.

McDonnell said in an interview Wednesday that he will be dealing with the consequences for years to come, including multiple criminal indictments, an ongoing federal investigation and possible federal oversight of the county jails.

An LAPD veteran who has been police chief of Long Beach since 2010, McDonnell has more than three decades of law enforcement experience. At the LAPD, he helped implement a consent decree that largely resulted from the Rampart corruption scandal. But he has never run a large jail system or an agency that provides security for courthouses and public transit in addition to patrolling county streets.


Making good personnel appointments and ensuring that top commanders are closely supervised will be key, said several retired undersheriffs who supported McDonnell’s candidacy.

“It all depends on how you deal with your subordinate leadership, how well they understand what your policy is as a sheriff. You either enforce that policy, or you won’t be supervising anymore,” said Bob Edmonds, who blamed the department’s problems on Baca and Tanaka.

Jerry Harper, another retired undersheriff who endorsed McDonnell, said the appointment of a second-in-command is key, and that McDonnell must remain visible.

“He needs to give a lot of thought to who that No. 2 is, who is going to represent him when he’s not there,” Harper said. “He can’t be an absentee sheriff like Baca was.”

McDonnell, 55, said a “wholesale housecleaning” of upper management would damage morale, and he plans to give each employee — including Tanaka loyalists — a fair shake. His undersheriff will probably come from within the department to teach him the ropes of the 18,000-member agency.

“I won’t be pulling up with a bus full of people from other agencies on Day One,” said McDonnell, who takes office Dec. 1.

In Long Beach, McDonnell is popular among his officers and has developed strong relationships with community leaders but came under fire for a series of controversial officer-involved shootings. He served on the county’s Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which developed influential recommendations for L.A. County jails.

The U.S. Department of Justice is moving forward with a consent decree involving mental healthcare in the county jails, citing a dramatic increase in inmate suicides, many of which were preventable. McDonnell said he hopes to work with federal officials on the terms of the consent decree, which would be overseen by a judge. In his victory speech, he pledged to work with Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to place some mentally ill offenders in treatment programs rather than jail cells. But he said a new jail is still needed to replace the dilapidated Men’s Central Jail.

Changes are already underway to grant new deputies their preference of patrol or jail assignments, instead of mandatory jail stints of as many as seven years, and McDonnell said he plans to follow through.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the jails have improved from the days when inmates regularly reported brutal assaults by deputies, but more remains to be done.

“Sometimes, there can be an attitude that we’ve removed a few bad apples and we’ve fixed everything,” Eliasberg said. “He needs to not be complacent. The department has made progress, but we’re not there yet.”

McDonnell has expressed support for a civilian oversight commission to supplement the new inspector general in monitoring the Sheriff’s Department. He is evaluating whether the inspector general should have subpoena power and access to personnel records, but he said he hopes to be as open as possible to help prevent the types of problems that developed in the previous administration.

“It was just the way it was, and nobody who came along challenged it,” McDonnell said of the Sheriff’s Department under Baca. “It’s about ensuring that we support what we say with what we do, with rewards and discipline.”