Jim McDonnell cites fresh perspective as L.A. County sheriff candidate

Jim McDonnell
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, center, is flanked by Sgt. Megan Zabel, left, Lt. Joel Cook, Deputy Chief Robert Luna and Cmdr. Michael Beckman as they discuss plans on the first day of the Grand Prix.
(Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

On his first day as chief of the Long Beach Police Department, Jim McDonnell stepped into hostile territory.

Many police officers were opposed to a chief from the outside, especially one from the LAPD. McDonnell had landed the job over several well-respected internal candidates.

When McDonnell ordered a mandatory briefing within 72 hours of officer-involved shootings, his subordinates did not mince words, recalled Steve James, president of the Long Beach police union.

“Many of us thought, ‘All we need is one more meeting,’” James said. “ ‘Here comes the new chief and one more meeting.’ ”


Four years later, the 72-hour review is generally embraced. McDonnell won over skeptics by respecting the department’s traditions and listening to suggestions, James and others said.

McDonnell is hoping to repeat his Long Beach experience at a larger and deeply troubled agency: the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

He is one of seven candidates seeking to replace Lee Baca, the longtime sheriff who retired in the face of scandal after 18 employees were criminally charged and the department was found to have hired deputies with criminal histories, including Baca’s own nephew.

The federal indictments include allegations that sheriff’s officials assaulted jail inmates and hid a jailhouse informant from the FBI.


As the only serious contender without roots in the department, McDonnell has attracted high-profile endorsements and a substantial war chest from those who believe that change can best come from outside. A McDonnell victory would be historic: For a century, L.A. County voters have chosen a sheriff from inside the department.

McDonnell’s opponents in the Tuesday primary, who include two assistant sheriffs and a retired undersheriff, argue that only someone steeped in the department’s unique mix of jail management and street-level policing can turn the place around.

“He’s a very respected law enforcement professional.... To me it’s not about whether he has the knowledge or capability, but it’s the internal knowledge within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” said Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold, a candidate with 25 years in the department.

McDonnell, 54, deflects those criticisms by promising to appoint top aides from within. He cites his service on the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which issued influential recommendations on how to fix the nation’s largest county jail system.

“I bring a fresh perspective from the outside. I’m not encumbered by internal alliances,” McDonnell said. “I didn’t grow up with people in the organization. I don’t owe anybody anything.”

The son of working-class immigrants from Ireland, McDonnell has lived in Southern California since joining the Los Angeles Police Department at age 21. His Boston origins are apparent in his flat vowels and dropped consonants, as well as in his sports allegiances. He still roots for the Red Sox, the Patriots and the NHL’s Bruins.

At candidate debates, McDonnell often reels off his plans in a monotone. He is not a natural politician, and it is in part that reticence that has won him respect from the cops he commands.

“He has a certain style about him,” said Robert Luna, a Long Beach deputy chief. “When you’re in a room with him, you know he’s in charge, but he’s not egotistical, he’s not, ‘I’m the king.’”


McDonnell flirted with a run for sheriff last year but decided that the campaign season was too long and Baca too formidable of an opponent. He jumped in only after Baca’s retirement in January.

Despite his outward modesty, McDonnell has long aspired to lead an agency, losing out for the LAPD’s top job, first to William J. Bratton and then Charlie Beck. As Bratton’s second-in-command, McDonnell helped implement the federal consent decree that arose largely out of the Rampart corruption scandal.

His supporters say that is the kind of experience needed to clean up a sheriff’s department with a history of favoritism, deputy cliques and violence in the jails.

“People were a little resistant. They liked things the way they’d always done them,” Tyler Izen, president of the LAPD union, said of the consent decree era. “It was frequently Jim McDonnell, with his enthusiasm, who said, ‘We’re going to do this. This is the right thing to do. We can do it. Let’s all get in there and go.’”

In Long Beach, McDonnell leads a force diminished by budget cuts to just over 800 sworn officers. He has been criticized for a rise in officer-involved shootings, as well as the 2013 beating of an unarmed man. Last month, Long Beach officers fatally shot a 36-year-old man who was allegedly armed only with a wooden stick as he fled down a set of stairs. The man’s family has filed a $10-million claim against the city.

Citing the 72-hour reviews, McDonnell said the department is always trying to improve.

“We’re looking for red flags: training issues, equipment issues, tactical issues,” McDonnell said. “Are there things we need to do with the individual officer, with the unit or department-wide training?”

Transparency has also been an issue in Long Beach during McDonnell’s tenure. The city and the police union are fighting a request by The Times seeking the names of Long Beach police officers who have used lethal force. The case is now before the California Supreme Court.


In response to a question at a candidate debate, McDonnell referred to the court case, saying the outcome “will dictate where we go from there.” In general, he said, he strives for openness in dealing with the press and with oversight agencies.

“In policing, we treat 95% of what we do as a secret, when actually 5% needs to be kept confidential because of state laws or because it would jeopardize an investigation,” he said.

McDonnell said his No. 1 priority as sheriff would be “restoring public trust and pride within the organization.” He favors a two-track system separating deputies who want a career in the jails and those who want to do street patrol. Under Baca, new deputies spent years in the jails, even if they aspired to do patrol work.

“They’re crossing off the days on the calendar as if they’re an inmate. That’s not a high-productivity individual,” McDonnell said.

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