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Endorsement: Jim McDonnell for L.A. County sheriff

L.A. County Sheriff's candidate Jim McDonnell speaks with members of Hollywood 399 at the 35th annual Labor Day Parade in Wilmington.
(Los Angeles Times)

With seven candidates in the June primary race for Los Angeles County sheriff, there was little chance that any one of them would win more votes than the other six combined — the very high bar for taking the election outright and preventing a runoff. Yet Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell came close. With a solid record in law enforcement and a bold, well-thought-out plan for reform of the troubled Sheriff’s Department, McDonnell won more than 49% of ballots cast and now faces former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka on Nov. 4.

McDonnell was the right choice then, when the field was larger, and he’s all the more clearly the right choice now. Tanaka is closely linked with a departmental culture of inmate abuse, gang-like deputy cliques and secrecy. He has acknowledged being a subject of an ongoing federal obstruction of justice investigation that has resulted in the convictions of six deputies. The Times recommends a vote for McDonnell in November — to put serious momentum behind meaningful and lasting positive change at the Sheriff’s Department.

McDonnell is no doubt gratified at the overwhelming backing he has received from Los Angeles’ political establishment, and although he is not the kind of person to say so, he is presumably comforted by the meltdown of his remaining opponent’s campaign.

But consensus in the corridors of power is a poor reason by itself for backing a candidate, especially for an office like this one, especially at this time in its history, when the department is in crisis and under scrutiny. Los Angeles County requires a sheriff courageous enough to stand up to other elected leaders, confront labor, buck bureaucracy when need be and stand up to deputies inside the department in order to change the culture. And it needs a sheriff wise enough to work closely with those leaders and interests.

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The perception of inevitability is likewise a tepid argument for support. Voters need better reasons to pick McDonnell. Here are a few.

He is a consummate law enforcement professional, with an outstanding record as a Los Angeles police officer who rose from the academy to patrol to second-in-command at the LAPD at a time when the department was facing a crisis not unlike the Sheriff Department’s today. When the LAPD needed to leave behind the “thin blue line” style of occupation policing and commit itself to a community-engagement model, McDonnell was one of the department’s leading thinkers and implementers. When evidence of perjury and evidence tampering turned into the Rampart scandal, and when the U.S. Department of Justice threatened suit over civil rights violations, McDonnell helped overcome resistance to a consent decree and was instrumental in getting the LAPD to embrace it and meet its requirements. As second-in-command to Chief William J. Bratton, he guided a wholesale change in department culture, and he saw firsthand the degree to which that change was made possible by strong leadership and smart training.

McDonnell was qualified to lead the LAPD, but when city leaders instead chose Charlie Beck, McDonnell accepted the job as chief of the Long Beach Police Department. While there, he has piloted the department through some difficult times and has earned the respect of officers who were at first wary of an outsider as their leader. Significantly, he also won plaudits from department critics.

When reports of inmate beatings and management breakdowns at the Sheriff’s Department became too numerous and too shocking to ignore, and county supervisors convened a citizens commission to examine problems and recommend remedies, McDonnell was an inspired appointment, but also an obvious and perhaps even a necessary one. In the panel’s year of hearings, interviews, site visits and reports, McDonnell saw firsthand the depth of problems at the department and was in a position to be able to distinguish between those ills that could be attributed to individual deputies or leaders and those that were inextricably wound up in a culture of defiance and dysfunction.

As a candidate, McDonnell has boldly embraced structural reforms such as a civilian oversight commission, even though such a body could curb his power, or anyone else’s, as sheriff. It’s hard to overstate the importance of that position. All of the candidates embraced the concept, but McDonnell put himself on record in favor of particular structural details and demonstrated, in so doing, a commitment to transparency and public participation badly needed at the department. Some proponents back oversight to guard against the actions of a bad sheriff, and some consider the move less necessary with McDonnell at the helm. McDonnell, presumably, recognizes that oversight can make a good sheriff better and can help guard against the corrupting influence that unchecked power can have on even the most talented and well-motivated leaders.

The Sheriff’s Department is almost certain to find its operation under the watchful eye of courts or monitors in the near future, and for some time to come, because of mistreatment of mentally ill and other jail inmates. McDonnell is no stranger to such oversight, and would no doubt help the department improve its service while guiding the county toward achieving compliance — much as Bratton, also an outsider, did with the LAPD.

There is nothing about being an “outsider” that, by itself, makes a candidate inherently better suited for office than one immersed in the culture and history of the job. There are times, though, when an outsider’s fresh approach and separation from internal factions and other departmental baggage is an advantage, and at the Sheriff’s Department this is one such time. McDonnell is prepared to come in as an outsider, as he did successfully in Long Beach, but with the benefit of the yearlong study of the department he gained on the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, and with the experience of more than three decades in law enforcement. It is hard to imagine a candidate better suited to the job.

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