Jim McDonnell was elected as Los Angeles County sheriff in late 2014 amid high hopes. After all, how could he help but do better than Lee Baca? Baca, remember, was sentenced to three years in federal prison for presiding over a conspiracy to obstruct a federal probe into violence at the county jails, which he ran. Baca’s former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, already is in prison for his role in the scheme. The two men and their top staff ran the department’s fiber and morale into the ground with a program of patronage, cronyism and cover-ups.
McDonnell was not merely some run-of-the-mill cop with political ambitions. He became aware of the depth of the department’s serious problems while serving as a member of a county Jail Violence Commission that focused on the unconscionable abuse and neglect of inmates. He co-authored a searing report that critiqued a toxic culture of arrogance and mismanagement and a deep-set resistance to accountability. He helped craft detailed recommendations for recovery. As a candidate he spoke with approval of criminal justice reform measures to emphasize second chances and expressed a preference for drug treatment over incarceration. He was well-positioned as the chief of the Long Beach Police Department and the former second-in-command of the Los Angeles Police Department to take Baca’s job. He was a consummate law enforcement insider, yet a refreshing Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department outsider.
By the time he took over as sheriff, he had become the symbol of a new direction for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Now, as he concludes his first term and seeks a second, he is being challenged by Sheriff’s Lt. Alex Villanueva and retired Sheriff’s Cmdr. Bob Lindsey, both of whom say McDonnell has bungled his makeover of the department by promoting unworthy personnel and imposing unfair discipline on front-line deputies, leaving an underperforming force with low morale and an inability to fill hundreds of vacancies.
Incumbent Los Angeles County sheriffs are generally unassailable at reelection time, boasting a clear advantage in name recognition and fundraising prowess. Yet McDonnell’s challengers have done remarkably well. Villanueva has won the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. Lindsey claims the lead in fundraising.
McDonnell’s administration has had its ups and downs, so if either of his opponents were to lay out a comprehensive program for running a modern Sheriff’s Department that reflected the best thinking on criminal justice reform, public safety and jail management, he would merit serious consideration. But both Villanueva and Lindsey focus too much on internal issues and resentments of the rank-and-file and insufficiently on how the department could better serve the county’s 10 million people.
Of the three, McDonnell remains the best choice, although in many respects he has thus far fallen short of his early promise.
Poor communication leaves the department aloof from the public. Workforce problems (low morale, an inability to hire) persist. As other law enforcement leaders around the nation assert leadership in solving pressing criminal justice issues, such as smarter bail policies and diversion programs for less serious criminals, McDonnell sometimes appears to be leading California’s forces of reaction and retrenchment. Changing times call for the leader of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department to take a central role in mapping out forward-looking public safety practices that emphasize rehabilitation and diversion from arrest and incarceration for people suffering addiction or mental illness; but the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is not currently among the groundbreakers.
There has been a discomfiting array of deputy misbehavior or worse on McDonnell’s watch. Consider, for example, the deputy alleged to have raped inmates at the women’s jail in Lynwood; the video of the deputy ignoring a call of “shots fired” so he could talk on the phone to his girlfriend; the offensive racially charged emails sent by the sheriff’s then-chief of staff; the succession of shootings of unarmed men; the continuing deaths at the county jails; the charges against a sergeant for demanding sex in exchange for time off; the questionable purchase by an assistant sheriff of a car seized from a drunk driving suspect.
There will be problems in any organization the size of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, with its more than 17,000 employees, and certainly McDonnell deserves credit for responding swiftly to the various charges. Yet the incidents give evidence that the makeover of his department remains a work in progress.
McDonnell likewise deserves a measure of patience, given the scope of his task. He runs the nation’s largest jail and consequently is also the nation’s largest provider of mental health services. He must be a businessman, managing contracts with 42 cities, the courts and community colleges, while also dispatching deputies to patrol county parks and hospitals and to conduct search and rescue operations across 4,751 square miles.
He is hampered by a civil service system that returns to duty many of the deputies he fires for misconduct. His laudable attempt to share with the district attorney the names of deputies who have histories of lying or other misconduct has so far been blocked by a deputies’ union lawsuit.
So what more could Los Angeles residents demand?
To some extent, they already have made their demands. In overwhelmingly adopting criminal justice reform measures such as propositions 47 and 57 and AB 109, they have a right to expect a sheriff who will make those reforms work, rather than blame them unfairly for an uptick in crime — while simultaneously touting decreases in crime. They should expect their sheriff to take the lead on bail reform, so that suspects who have not yet been convicted of anything don’t sit in jail merely because they can’t afford to bail out. They should ask him to apply to his overcrowded jails — in which convicted misdemeanants serve just 10% of their sentences and some are released the same day they arrive — a triage model, in which he assesses the risk of each inmate to reoffend and keeps the most dangerous people the longest and directs others to proven treatment or rehabilitation programs.