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4 biggest challenges facing LA Sheriff-elect Jim McDonnell

Los Angeles County Sheriff candidate Jim McDonnell speaks to supporters during his election party on Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2014 at the JW Marriott at LA Live.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Los Angeles County Sheriff candidate Jim McDonnell speaks to supporters during his election party on Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2014 at the JW Marriott at LA Live.

The easy part may be over for Jim McDonnell.

On Tuesday, the Long Beach police chief easily won his bid to become the next sheriff of Los Angeles County, trouncing former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka 75 to 25 percent.

But McDonnell, 54, will assume control of a troubled department that faces multiple FBI investigations and deep community mistrust.

“We are all at a defining and historic moment for our Sheriff’s Department,” McDonnell told supporters on election night. “But working together, we can move beyond past problems and rebuild the fractured relationship with our community.

“We can usher in a new era for this great department,” he said.

Here are the top challenges facing McDonnell, who takes office Dec. 1.

1. County Jails

A 2012 Citizens Commission on Jail Violence detailed a “persistent pattern of unreasonable force by sheriff’s deputies against inmates.” Mentally ill inmates suffer most, according to federal prosecutors.

“There is inadequate mental health care to prevent prisoners from becoming suicidal, to identify suicidal prisoners, or to prevent prisoners from going into crisis,” the Department of Justice said in a report earlier this year.

The report described “dimly lit, vermin-infested, noisy, unsanitary, cramped and crowded” living conditions inside the jails. They are conditions that can send someone who is unstable over the edge

“The more time you’re in there, the worse you become,” says Philip Cho, a jail activist who once spent a week in solitary confinement as he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia without his medications. 

McDonnell has promised to divert more mentally ill inmates to treatment, but offered few details. He must also decide what kind of facility must replace the aging and notoriously dangerous Mens Central Jail.

2. Command Staff

The need for change goes far beyond the jails, says longtime sheriff’s watchdog Merrick Bobb.

“The key issue facing the new sheriff is restoring a culture of accountability that got lost very significantly,” Bobb told KPCC.

The citizen’s panel found a failed discipline system and apparent favoritism in promotions. A federal grand jury has indicted 21 current and former sheriffs officials on civil rights and corruption charges. Seven have been convicted.

Bobb says McDonnell will have to replace some of the command staff. “I think it’s very important for him to bring in fresh people, fresh air.”

Interim Sheriff John Scott says he's replaced some people, "but more work needs to be done."

3. Outside Oversight

Activists argue outside oversight must accompany any changes in the command staff, because there are no term limits for the sheriff.

“This sheriff will probably be with us for decades,” Patrice Cullors of Dignity and Power Now told a recent rally outside Twin Towers.

McDonnell will have an overseer of sorts: newly appointed inspector general Max Huntsman. He wants McDonnell to ignore concerns from the deputies union and give him access to personnel records so he can identify problem cops.

“If you exclude personnel records from the vision of the inspector general's office, suddenly you’ve got a huge blind spot,” Huntsman says.

4. Grappling With the Giant

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is huge. In addition to running the jails, deputies patrol 42 cities, unincorporated areas, plus all MTA bus and rail lines.

It will all be new to McDonnell, who spent most of his career at the LAPD. James Hellmold, who serves as one of 18 chiefs on the Sheriff’s Department says that’s not a problem for him, but could be for others who cling to an old rivalry.

“Lets face it, it would be like UCLA and USC when you have LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department,” Hellmold says.

Overcoming any suspicion among deputies and command staff will be one key to his success, says Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

“You can imagine, when he arrives on his first day, he is there to fix things. And not everybody is going to welcome that with open arms,” Lacey says.