Long Beach Police Department Chief Jim McDonnell is scheduled to be sworn in as Los Angeles County Sheriff this afternoon.
There's no question that he was elected in November to reform a department rocked by federal charges against deputies that included allegations of excessive force against inmates, assaults on jail visitors, and the attempting thwarting an FBI investigation by hiding an incarcerated informant. It sounds like a clear task, but it won't be easy.
Longtime sheriff's department observers and critics say McDonnell will have to channel the vengeful will of the people, fed up with the tainted, back-room leadership of retired Sheriff Lee Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka (McDonnell's failed political opponent, who has acknowledged he's still under federal investigation).
But he'll also have to shore up morale, acknowledged to be at a low point for America's largest sheriff's department as a result of the scandal-plagued Baca years.
At least one limited federal consent decree is also expected to come down the pike and guide some of McDonnell's governance when it comes to mentally ill inmates.
That won't boost the confidence of deputies, either.
McDonnell, then, is in a position to do for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department what Jim Bratton did as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department in the '00s: Reform an embattled organization without punishing the troops.
“He has to keep focusing on reforms that, for whatever reason, for more than 20 years have not been adopted,” said former sheriff's monitor and special counsel Merrick Bobb. “The sheriff's job is not for the faint of heart.”
Celeste Fremon, a sometime L.A. Weekly contributor who has investigated the sheriff's department and who has also covered McDonnell since before he worked alongside Bratton at the LAPD, says both institutions suffered from an “us-versus-them mentality between the department and the community they policed.”
At the Rampart Scandal-plagued LAPD, she said, it was once “okay to do what you gotta do to do what needed to be done. The sheriff's department has all that, but they have something LAPD didn't have, which is this cultural of favoritism, where loyalty trumps duty.”
Here, then, are some of the top challenges for McDonnell at the LASD:
-Cleaning house. McDonnell might have to get rid of people associated with the cliquish, thuggish behavior of the past, including brass who either encouraged it or looked the other way. (Tanaka, the former second-in-command, is said to have a tattoo of a deputy gang known as the Vikings).
“It's going to be challenging to deal with the factions that still exist in the L.A. Sherriff's Department,” Fremon says. “Watching the LAPD go through its struggle and change, particularly under Bratton, it was a mess. This other culture was what was rewarded and ruled the day for a very long time and that's very tricky to root out. A lot of that still exists in the sheriff's department even though the sheriff and undersheriff of the time are gone. How do you get rid of that culture?”
Bobb, the former special counsel, says morale is a consideration, but it shouldn't prevent McDonnell from acting swiftly:
I don't see how morale could be worse. I think he should move quickly. I think he should bring his own people in. I don't think he should rely on the people who are already there.
Peter Eliasburg who, as legal director of the ACLU of Southern California has been one of the sheriff's department's biggest critics, is willing to cut McDonnell some slack on restructuring personnel.
“I would certainly feel better if there was some shakeup in top command,” he said. “But he's not going to want to get rid of every bit of institutional history. Whoever his number two person is, he's got to have someone he really trusts to run the day-to-day operations of the department.”
-Reforming the jails. The sheriff's department runs the largest jail system in the country. One of the biggest problems with the system has been the department's program of putting first-day rookies on lockup duty for two years before allowing them to hit the streets.
It can seed hatred and violence in budding cops.
McDonnell has said that's one of the things he'll change. But it will take some time. He'll have to recruit people who actually want to work in jails, a different breed of officer.
Nonetheless, Bobb says, “The department on the custody side cannot wait much longer to have the reform.”
There are also widespread calls to reduce or even eliminate the time the some mentally ill inmates spend behind bars. They're better treated in medical settings, the argument goes, and keeping them out of lockup could save taxpayers a lot of cash.
-Cracking down on beatdowns. Both inside and outside the jail system, the department's way of dealing with cops accused of excessive force leaves much to be desired.
Eliasburg of the ACLU says that when it comes to “formal reviews of use of force, there's a lot of work to be done.”
“Deputies should be made to know that if force is used it will be carefully reviewed and there will be consequences,” he said.
-Embracing independent oversight (or not). Independent oversight at the LAPD has gone a long way toward repairing relations with some communities that once saw city cops as an occupying force.
The same could happen at the LASD, but it's complicated. McDonnell's is an independently elected position, and his boss is comprised of you, the voter. How could, for example, the elected county Board of Supervisors create an independent review board that would then also essentially tell McDonnell what to do?
There have long been attempts to bring an independent oversight body to the table, but it has always been tricky. “There's are real questions about what authority a civilian review board would have,” says Eliasburg.
Bobb agrees, saying that establishing a civilian oversight body wouldn't guarantee “it will be meaningful and have teeth.”
-Creating transparency. Rebuilding trust with the community McDonnell serves is a must. Letting the public get a look at how the sausage is made could help.
“He's someone who has talked a lot about transparency,” journalist Fremon says. “That's going to be extraordinarily important. I've found him to a be a straight shooter.”
But Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable says he's disappointed by McDonnell's recent tenure as Long Beach's top cop, where officer-involved shootings, including one of an unarmed man that was captured on video, have stirred up resentment, criticism and mistrust in some neighborhoods.
“I didn't see any transparency,” he said. “I'll have to go by is his track record in Long Beach. Quite frankly it wasn't a good one. Perhaps he will operate differently.”
Fremon says that one thing McDonnell can immediately do to earn our trust is order a forensic audit of sheriff's finances to clear up allegedly murky spending under Baca's tenure.
“There have long been questions,” she said, “about where the money goes.”
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