L.A. Now

Restoring Sheriff's Dept. morale by not doing too much or too little

At the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department headquarters, a winding hallway leads to an unexpected oasis.

Surrounded by trees, with a built-in grill and tables, the patio is an ideal place for a barbecue. Until recently, though, only a select few enjoyed it, smoking cigars and fashioning it into their own private hangout.

In his first week as interim sheriff, John Scott announced that the cigar patio, as it was called, would be open to all employees. A contest would be held to choose a new name and smoking would no longer be allowed.

Scott took over the Sheriff's Department two months ago after Lee Baca unexpectedly resigned amid federal indictments against 21 deputies and a series of scandals ranging from alleged racist policing to favoritism in hiring. Many of those big problems remain unresolved. But Scott has made a start in dismantling some controversial elements of the Baca culture.

Scott said opening the patio was about sending a signal: He would not tolerate the clubby atmosphere that flourished under Baca.

The department as he found it was "kind of like an abused child," he said.

Soon after taking office, Scott got rid of the four politically connected field deputies who drew six-figure salaries and answered directly to Baca.

Recently, his housecleaning extended to some volunteer reserve deputies who carry badges and, in some cases, guns. About 40 of the department's roughly 800 reserves have been let go, officials said. The reserve program came under scrutiny several times during Baca's tenure, often over allegations of politically connected people being given special treatment to become reserves.

In 2010, a state report found that the department gave reserve badges to people who flunked mandatory law enforcement tests. As a result, 99 reserves were stripped of their badges.

One of the reserve deputies who recently was asked to resign was Gary Nalbandian, a Glendora auto shop owner and Baca fundraiser. Nalbandian made headlines in 2006 when as head of Baca's homeland security support advisory board, he distributed official-looking photo identification to 48 local business owners and political donors who made up the group.

In a letter to The Times, Nalbandian said he was being forced out because he is not supporting the candidacy of two sheriff's captains seeking to replace Baca. "It is my strong belief that I was politically targeted," he wrote.

Scott did not say why he pushed Nalbandian out. But in describing several of his moves, Scott argued that he was trying to take the politics out of the department.

"There were a lot of people brought into this department for political reasons," he said.

Scott is both an insider and an outsider, a 36-year department veteran who retired in 2005, then became undersheriff in Orange County. After Baca resigned, the Board of Supervisors brought Scott, 66, back to lead the troubled agency until the winner of a seven-man election takes over at the end of the year.

Nearly three months into his tenure, Scott has ruffled a few feathers but is generally winning praise as he treads the line between not doing enough and doing too much.

In his last position at the department, from 2000 to 2005, Scott was in charge of the jails. He ran a tight ship, he said, adding that the reported incidents of brutality against inmates that led to multiple indictments would not have occurred under his watch.

The recommendations of a blue ribbon commission were already well on their way to being implemented, Scott said, with former state corrections official Terri McDonald overseeing the changes. Scott has reinstituted data analysis meetings that had fallen by the wayside, and "significant use of force" by deputies are down, according to statistics provided by the department. A new mental health lieutenant is helping reduce violent incidents involving mentally ill inmates.

Data are also being used at patrol stations to pinpoint crime hot spots, and a new community policing strategy will start this summer.

Union leaders said morale has gone up since Scott took over.

During Baca's 15-year tenure, promotions were sometimes based on "campaign contributions or who you know," said Brian Moriguchi, president of the union that represents supervisors and civilian employees.

Now, employees believe those decisions will be based on merit, Moriguchi said.

"Many of the employees had lost hope, and with Sheriff Scott coming in, there appears to be renewed hope, as well as excitement that things are going to improve," Moriguchi said.

Baca had long denied that promotions were tied to contributions.

Jeffrey Steck, president of one of the competing factions of the deputies' union, praised Scott for ending a discipline system that was perceived by some as being overly punitive.

"At some point, our leaders were becoming very distracted," Steck said. "He has stabilized the department, and we are now able to do our jobs better."

Scott said he has tightened hiring rules so that unqualified people will no longer join the department, no matter who their relatives are. Starting in July, deputies will be trained at a new academy structured more like boot camp than a college course. The much-criticized system of assigning all new deputies to the jails for several years is gradually being phased out, Scott said.

"It's to take individuals who maybe have very little life experience, and to place them in situations where they have to act under pressure, because that's what our job's all about," Scott said of the new academy. "You never know from one moment to the next what you're going to run into, and you have to be prepared to deal with it with a level of balance, maturity and professionalism."

Miriam Krinsky, who headed the blue ribbon commission on the jails, said that for the most part, Scott is handling the interim role well, setting a clear tone while keeping in mind that he will soon hand the job to someone else.

"Scott has made some changes, but everyone recognizes that the die will really be cast by the next leader of the department," Krinsky said.

Scott said he has met with all seven candidates for sheriff and believes they are on board with his agenda.

"The things that should have been done, I've continued or started," he said. "I don't see anything I'm doing that's controversial or that would be jettisoned by the next sheriff."

The contest results for renaming the cigar patio were recently announced: It is now known as the Terrace Grill.

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