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Jim McDonnell's career as police chief could show how he'd lead as sheriff

Jim McDonnell's career as police chief could show how he'd lead as sheriff
Long Beach police Chief Jim McDonnell is widely considered to be the front-runner in the Nov. 4 election to be the next sheriff of L.A. County. He would be the first sheriff in a century elected from outside the department's ranks. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Jim McDonnell opened the news conference with condolences for the family of Douglas Zerby, shot dead by police officers who mistook a garden hose nozzle he was holding for a gun.

The expression of sympathy from the Long Beach police chief seemed to only sharpen the family's grief. As a woman sobbed loudly, McDonnell began to describe the previous day's fatal shooting.

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He put his hands together to mimic Zerby allegedly pointing the nozzle at a police officer. Two rounds fired by the officers came from a shotgun, he started to say in his flat Boston accent.

"A shotgun? Oh my god," Zerby's sister burst out. "You shot him with a shotgun? Oh my god."

The Zerby shooting on Dec. 12, 2010, was the first major crisis for McDonnell after nine months as police chief.

The two officers who shot Zerby were eventually cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation. The Los Angeles County district attorney declined to bring charges, concluding that the officers reasonably feared for their lives. But Zerby's family won a $6.5-million civil judgment, and officer-involved shootings have continued to be a problem for McDonnell, spiking in 2013 before leveling out this year.

McDonnell's tenure in Long Beach may provide an indication of how he would run a much larger agency — the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He is widely considered the front-runner in the Nov. 4 runoff election for sheriff against retired Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

He would be the first sheriff in a century elected from outside the department's ranks.

That December Monday, as McDonnell faced the news media and Zerby's grieving family, he was starting to win over rank-and-file officers suspicious of an outsider from the Los Angeles Police Department. He was becoming a fixture at community gatherings, impressing local leaders with his low-key friendliness and willingness to listen.

His biggest challenge at the time was the budget — how to shave dollars while policing a city that in some ways is a microcosm of sprawling L.A. County, with beaches, a port, ethnic enclaves, a resurgent downtown and gang issues in some neighborhoods.

Four years later, violent crime is down by about 20%, mirroring a national trend, even as the police force has diminished to about 800 officers from 1,000 when McDonnell started in March 2010. The chief's supporters believe that the drop is no statistical accident and that he should take credit for deploying his limited resources wisely. He is generally popular with his officers and is praised for maintaining strict standards while giving his commanders the latitude to make their own decisions.

"Jim was our chief during the worst recession, and he managed that well," said Long Beach City Manager Pat West. "Rather than stand on the podium and say we need more money, he rolled up his sleeves."

But relations between the Police Department and minority residents are fragile in some neighborhoods, and the agency has been faulted for a lack of racial diversity within its ranks. The highest-ranking African American is a lieutenant. In recent years, more than 40% of complaints filed with the city's Citizen Police Complaint Commission were from blacks, who make up about 13% of the population.

And questions remain over whether some of McDonnell's officers are too quick to pull the trigger.

"Coming in to be sheriff of a department that has a problem of using excessive force in the jails and on the streets, and he comes from a department that has a bad track record — that's a little problematic for me," said Dale Galipo, an attorney who represented Zerby's family.

City officials say that McDonnell has taken steps to reduce the number of police shootings and that he scrutinized the Zerby incident internally while being as open as possible with the public.

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"I think he handled that very well," said Bob Foster, who was mayor at the time. "He was honest and straightforward and called things as he saw them."

Before Long Beach, McDonnell spent his whole career at the LAPD, rising to No. 2 under then-Chief William J. Bratton. After Charlie Beck was picked to succeed Bratton, Long Beach officials wooed McDonnell, a longtime resident of the city, over the objections of those who favored internal candidates.

At first, McDonnell held back from making major changes, getting to know the department and its people before introducing his own ideas — an approach many officers respected, said Steve James, who is president of the Long Beach Police Officers Assn.

"The fact that he didn't come in and decide that the LAPD does things better than Long Beach gained him so much credibility that it was unbelievable," James said.

One change McDonnell did introduce almost immediately was a review of officer-involved shootings within 72 hours, to examine the tactics used by officers without waiting for the months-long official investigation. Among other adjustments, the department has increased its use of ballistic blankets to shield officers from armed suspects and make a shootout less likely.

Still, officer-involved shootings rose from seven in 2012 to 15 in 2013. So far this year, there have been four. Among them was the April 27 death of Jason Conoscenti, an unarmed man who was shot by police as he fled down a flight of stairs toward the beach.

Galipo is representing the Conoscenti family, which plans to sue, and has filed suit on behalf of two others killed by Long Beach police — John Del Real, who was shot shortly after he left his Long Beach home, and Tyler Damon Woods, shot on a rooftop in November 2013 after fleeing a traffic stop. Woods was unarmed. Police said Del Real was reaching for something in his waistband and later found an aluminum bat inside his pants.

McDonnell said he has carefully analyzed the cases and found no clear explanation for the increase last year or the drop this year. In late 2013, he created a use-of-force committee to solicit community input on the issue.

"We have the benefit of time to evaluate what they did for appropriateness, and they had seconds," McDonnell said of his officers.

Carolyn Smith Watts, a former member of the Citizen Police Complaint Commission who is now on the city's Civil Service Commission, said she had doubts about some of the officer-involved shootings. But McDonnell's strong relationships with community leaders have helped keep tensions to a minimum, she said.

"Do I think sometimes they're a little trigger happy? Yeah," said Watts, who was a police officer in Michigan. "I'm also thinking about how fast they have to think and process."

Watts and other African American leaders said McDonnell is a frequent presence at community events, often staying from beginning to end, and that above all he is accessible. While racial profiling remains an issue, there is always an outlet for their concerns, they said.

"Any time the pastors have a question about any process, all we have to do is make a phone call, and we're sitting in his office with him, with his deputy chiefs, with everyone who matters," said Gregory Sanders, senior pastor of the Rock Christian Fellowship and president of the Long Beach Ministerial Alliance.

The department's popularity does not extend to high-crime areas like North Long Beach, where young black men complain of being harassed by police.

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"They focus on little stuff, weed and stuff, when there are criminals out there," said Kenneth Dee, 28, who was with friends at the skateboard run in Houghton Park on a recent morning.

McDonnell, 55, said the department tries to recruit in the black, Latino and Cambodian communities but until recently has been hampered by a hiring freeze. Among sworn officers, 34% are Latino, 9% are Asian and 5% are African American.

In western Long Beach, which has many Spanish-speaking residents, gang activity has diminished under McDonnell, said Lena Gonzalez, city councilwoman for the area. More surveillance cameras in the business districts have helped reduce crime, she said. She has set up meetings, conducted in Spanish, with mothers of young Latino men who feel they have been unfairly singled out by police.

If McDonnell wins on Nov. 4, he will take charge of a Sheriff's Department with violence-prone jails, complex internal politics and low morale among its 18,000 employees. Seven sheriff's officials were recently convicted of obstructing a federal investigation into the jails, and the U.S. Department of Justice is moving forward with a consent decree over the handling of mentally ill inmates.

McDonnell nearly won the primary outright, with over 49% of the vote in a seven-man election to Tanaka's 15%, and has opened a huge lead in post-primary fundraising.

"My goal has been to police in a constitutional manner, to be respectful, to solve problems instead of addressing symptoms, to be compassionate. We're often dealing with people on the worst day of their lives," McDonnell said.

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