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Seeking reelection, LA Sheriff McDonnell says he's restored 'the shine to the badge'

On a recent morning, L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell strode to the front of a classroom at the department's sprawling Eugene Biscailuz Regional Training Center in Monterey Park. He turned to face 80 young men and women dressed in the department's forest green pants, tan shirt and plain black tie – the same outfit as McDonnell's except for the five stars on his collar.

"Good morning," the sheriff said, his accent revealing his roots as the Boston-born son of Irish immigrants.

"Good morning sir," the cadets shouted in unison.

"You're coming on at a difficult time in our profession," McDonnell told them. "It's a time where the expectations of the public have never been higher."

Expectations for McDonnell have been high since he took the helm of the scandal-plagued department in 2014. Now, as he seeks a second term in Tuesday's primary election, the sheriff claims he's fulfilled a key promise to "restore the shine to the badge."

Interviews with watchdogs, civil rights groups, outside experts and members of the force reveal a more complex assessment: There has been improvement, but important work remains to be done in the areas of jail reform, transparency and recruitment.

"we're no longer in crisis"

When McDonnell took over four years ago, former Sheriff Lee Baca had abruptly resigned amid a federal investigation into jail beatings. Baca, like his undersheriff Paul Tanaka, would later be found guilty of trying to cover up those abuses. In all, more than 20 sheriff's officials were convicted on corruption and other charges.

"The department was in crisis," McDonnel said in an interview. "We're no longer in crisis. We're moving forward."

Some agree that McDonnell, 58, has turned things around. "The sheriff's department is back in my opinion," said former federal judge Robert Bonner, who chairs the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. "And I mean back from a pretty low abyss."

In the years before McDonnell became sheriff, watchdog groups warned the department was adrift. The ACLU warned four separate times between 2008-12 of increasing complaints of deputy-on-inmate violence. In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department said deputies in the Antelope Valley were harassing African-Americans with targeted traffic stops and beatings.

Baca often was absent, uninterested in day-to-day management. Tanaka filled the power void, appointing loyalists to key positions and encouraging deputies to "work in the gray area," which many took as license to rough up inmates.

All of this came at a department that's long seen itself as one of the best in the country and certainly better than its rival, the LAPD.

McDonnell wore LAPD blue for nearly three decades, rising to assistant chief before he spent four years as the Long Beach police chief. He knew he would face resistance to his leadership at the sheriff's department.

So McDonnell didn't bring in his own team. He kept some holdovers and promoted others from inside the department to command positions. And he spent nearly his entire first year visiting dozens of sheriff's facilities across the more than 4,000 square miles of territory the department oversees.

trying to hold "problematic deputies" accountable

On a recent morning, the sheriff invited a reporter to his weekly meeting of top commanders on the eighth floor of the Hall of Justice. After the meeting, which included a robust discussion of jail staffing, McDonnell said, "the attitude I see here today is very different from the attitude I saw four years ago."

When he was elected, the command staff was quiet and guarded, he said. "But what I find today is a more collegial, more team-focused approach to what we're doing."

It hasn't all been collegial. McDonnell tightened the honesty policy and broadened the language that allowed him to fire a deputy – though he still faces a civil service commission that regularly overturns his personnel decisions. 

"I do think that he has undertaken efforts to try to hold problematic deputies accountable," said Priscilla Ocen, a member of the civilian oversight commission and a Loyola Law School professor. McDonnell's decision to try to hand over the names of 300 deputies to the district attorney is "particularly laudable," she said.

Those 300 deputies committed misconduct that might raise questions about their credibility on the witness stand, according to McDonnell.  Many saw his unprecedented effort to warn the DA about them as a bold move. 

But the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents rank and file deputies – has sued to stop him. It argues the move would violate California's Peace Officer Bill of Rights. The landmark case is now before the state supreme court.

a failure to lead on big issues?

Under McDonnell, crime in the unincorporated areas and 42 cities the sheriff patrols went up in the first two years of his term. He blamed two voter-approved measures that reduced prison sentences. Last year, crime ticked down. 

Deputy shootings during the sheriff's first three years dropped to an annual average of 29 – down from 42 in the three years before he took office. Under McDonnell, the department has more quickly and thoroughly reviewed incidents involving use of force.

McDonnell fought to limit the reach of the so-called "sanctuary state" law, which restricts cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

He cites as a big accomplishment the creation of a human trafficking bureau that has arrested hundreds of people and saved dozens of young women.

But Ocen gives the sheriff a "B-minus" for his first term, in part because "I don't think he's taken seriously [the civilian commission's] role as an independent oversight body. He's very resistant to oversight."

McDonnel has sometimes been slow to hand over documents to the oversight commission on critical issues, such as sexual assault inside the women's jail, she said.

When the sheriff wanted input on the department's first-ever use of a drone, he asked only after he had already started flying it, said Ocen.

McDonnell counters that he supported the creation of the civilian panel and has cooperated to the extent he can, given union rules and the need to keep certain law enforcement practices secret.

The sheriff has argued that he believes the commission should remain as an advisory body only. McDonnell opposes efforts to place a measure on the ballot that would give the panel subpoena power.

Ocen, who supports that effort, said it's an example of how the sheriff has failed to lead on big issues.

"That's what people are wanting from him, to be more engaged in transforming our system of justice," she said.

a big drop in the use of force against jail inmates

One of McDonnell's biggest challenges is L.A.'s sprawling jail system.

Standing outside the Twin Towers jail downtown, Ester Lim of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said McDonnell has been more open than Baca to addressing problems, noting that he even allowed the ACLU to train deputies at the women's jail about reproductive rights.

"We never would have seen that happen in the past," Lim said.

The use of significant force against inmates is dramatically down under McDonnell, who has been described as a willing partner by the federal monitor overseeing reforms. 

But Lim said McDonnell has been unwilling to order bigger changes, like the release of lower level offenders who can't make bail and the mentally ill, whose conditions can worsen behind bars.

"They came in with trauma and they are being abused in there simply because custody staff do not know how to interact with them properly," she said.

The federal jail monitor echoed this concern in a recent report that said the sheriff struggles to provide adequate care for seriously mentally ill inmates – who account for 30 percent of his 17,000 prisoners.

Deputies are getting more training, McDonnell said. He also touts a plan to build a $3.5 billion jail for those with mental health problems that would replace the four-decade-old Men's Central Jail.

"Our hope is they will have a place that is productive, a place that is therapeutic," he said.

The proposed ballot measure that seeks subpoena power for the oversight panel would also slow down the jail plan by requiring extensive studies of alternatives.

"morale is far lower" than under Baca

LA Sheriff Jim McDonnell addressing recruits at the Biscailuz Training Academy in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday, May 3, 2018.
Susanica Tam for KPCC
LA Sheriff Jim McDonnell addressing recruits at the Biscailuz Training Academy in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday, May 3, 2018.

But the head of the labor union that represents sergeants, lieutenants and dispatchers – Lt. Brian Moriguchi – said the sheriff has failed to address an equally pressing problem: filling about 1,000 vacancies. 

"We have employees working 96 hours of overtime a month," he said. "And it's not because they want to; it's because the department demands it." 

Deputies are stressed out and even leaving the department as a result of mandatory overtime, said Moriguchi.

"Morale is far lower than what it was when Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka were running this department," he said.

While McDonnell argues morale has improved as the cloud of scandal over the department has cleared, he also acknowledged mandatory overtime has hurt morale. 

He's conceded that the lack of deputies and exploding overtime budget have delayed key reforms, including plans to put body cameras on 6,000 deputies and expand the number of specially-trained mental health teams.

The two men looking to unseat McDonnell - retired Sheriff's Cmdr. Bob Lindsey and retired Sheriff's Lt. Alex Villanueva - have sharply criticized him for his inability to close the hiring gap.

Recruitment across law enforcement has been challenging amid increased criticism of the profession and a better job market. But the LAPD has nowhere near the number of vacancies as the sheriff.

The issue prompted the Board of Supervisors and the county chief administrative officer to create a task force to help McDonnell. The county also has hired an outside consultant.

McDonnell has said he inherited the vacancy problem, and that he's working on it. 

"We are sending recruiters across the country to universities, colleges, military bases," he said. "We are much more focused on social media."

Ready for Election Day? Get up to speed on what you need to know with KPCC’s Voter Game Plan. Read up on the candidates and ballot measures, find out about registration deadlines and ask us your questions.