Lee Baca’s pick for interim sheriff lacks required credentials

The law enforcement leader many expected would replace Sheriff Lee Baca when he steps down next week does not have the required credentials, complicating the job of Los Angeles County supervisors who must pick an interim sheriff.

When Baca unexpectedly announced his plans to drop his reelection bid and retire at the end of this month, he recommended that supervisors appoint Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald to run the department until voters select a permanent sheriff later this year.

Sheriff’s candidate: An article in the Jan. 23 LATExtra about who might be appointed to replace resigning Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on an interim basis misspelled the name of a candidate running for sheriff later this year. The candidate is Assistant Sheriff Jim Hellmold, not Hellmond.

McDonald, a former state corrections official, was brought in last year to oversee the department’s massive and troubled jail system and is highly regarded by the supervisors. But state law requires that sheriff’s candidates have either advanced certification through the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training or specific types of field experience and education as a law enforcement officer. McDonald has neither.

The supervisors will meet behind closed doors Thursday to discuss the interim appointment.


Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said after Baca’s resignation that he thought the interim sheriff should not be running for the permanent post. An aide to Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich echoed that sentiment Wednesday, saying the department needs someone who can “dedicate their full-time attention to managing it” rather than to running a campaign.

A candidate appointed to the interim post could also gain a political advantage by being able to identify themselves to voters as the incumbent.

Two of the three current assistant sheriffs other than McDonald — Todd Rogers and Jim Hellmond — are running for the office, along with ousted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, retired sheriff’s Cmdr. Bob Olmsted and Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell.

The board could opt to appoint an outsider or a retired sheriff’s official to the interim post.


Supervisor Gloria Molina declined to comment and supervisors Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore acknowledged that there were questions about the legality of appointing McDonald and said there have been talks of overcoming that by promoting her to the now vacant post of undersheriff, the department’s traditional second-in-command role.

“Then she could run the department as the undersheriff and there will be no prohibitions against her doing that,” Whitmore said. Whitmore said Baca recommended McDonald for the post because he saw her as an outsider, but one with a year’s worth of experience at the agency.

David Sommers, a spokesman for county Chief Executive William T Fujioka, said McDonald could oversee the department if appointed undersheriff, but the board would retain the power to appoint someone else as interim sheriff.


McDonald declined to comment on the selection process, saying the choice is up to the supervisors.

McDonald’s potential appointment as acting sheriff has prompted some grumblings within the agency because she comes from the state prison system and has little experience in patrol operations, which is the bulk of what the department does.

Whitmore said that if McDonald were selected she could always get advice from Cecil Rhambo — the only one of the three remaining assistant sheriffs not running for the post.

A blue-ribbon commission created by the county to look at allegations of widespread abuse and misconduct by deputies in the county jails recommended that the department recruit an outside custody expert who would be accountable for problems in the lockups. McDonald was hired to fill that role, and some have expressed concerns about taking her out of it.


Anna Pembedjian, public safety deputy to Antonovich, said the supervisor sees McDonald’s role in the custody division as crucial: “The Sheriff’s Department is a large agency and custody by itself is a full-time job,” she said.

Whitmore said that a subordinate of McDonald could take over running the jails and that such a move would not stymie reform efforts.