Sheriff-elect Jim McDonnell’s plan to boost morale and restore public trust in the 18,000 members of L.A.’s largest law-enforcement agency

Sheriff-elect Jim McDonnell surveys the harbor  from the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station dock. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Sheriff-elect Jim McDonnell surveys the harbor
from the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station dock. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Interview by Joe Piasecki

When it comes time to take the cover shot, Los Angeles County Sheriff-elect Jim McDonnell would rather fold his hands and smile than cross his arms and scowl.

“I don’t do tough-guy poses,” McDonnell, standing in front of a Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station patrol boat, explains in an accent befitting a matter-of-fact Boston cop.

It’s a somewhat telling choice by the 34-year L.A.-area law enforcement veteran, who on Monday takes the reigns of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department battered by a jailhouse brutality scandal that recently landed six deputies in prison for obstructing a federal misconduct probe.

McDonnell, 55, is no pushover. Graduating from the Los Angeles Police Academy in 1981, he rose through the ranks to second-in-command under LAPD Chief Bill Bratton — who implemented many of McDonnell’s reform proposals — before becoming chief of the Long Beach Police Department in 2010. At the LAPD he also administered compliance with the federal consent decree that came down after the Rampart scandal.

In October 2011, McDonnell was appointed by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, which conducted a yearlong probe into use of excessive force in the jails that ultimately faulted Sheriff’s Department leadership.

The thought of running for sheriff — a rank that no one outside the department had attained for at least a century — didn’t cross his mind at the time, but his frustration lingered on after the commission’s September 2012 report.

“The things that I heard testimony about were counter to what any of us in policing would tolerate and certainly not what the residents of L.A. County deserved,” he says. “I figured if I had something to offer but didn’t have the courage to offer it, I’d be disappointed in myself.”

So run McDonnell did, and won big — with 75% of the vote against former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, whom the commission implicated in discouraging accountability for misconduct by encouraging jail deputies “to work in an undefined gray area” and “push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities.”

The job is a big one. With 18,000 employees and a nearly $3-billion budget, the Sheriff’s Department handles 4,700 square miles of territory, including direct patrol service to unincorporated areas and 42 cities, the county court system and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

So why is he smiling?

“It’s a new day,” McDonnell says of moving forward. “We start looking at restoring the shine on the badge, if you will. What that really comes down to is restoring the trust of the public we serve and the pride and the morale of the men and women of the organization as well.”

How do you define the task ahead?

Going in eyes and ears wide-open, assessing the strengths of the organization and where we can do better, and then trying to match up personnel with the job ahead. The goal is to restore morale and pride — there are some tough years behind us — and public trust in the organization overall.

What do you think about convening a civilian oversight panel for the department, an idea the L.A. County Board of Supervisors rejected 3-2 in August?  

I think the benefit of having a group like that is to be able to have the inspector general work for them. I see both the inspector general and the oversight commission as another filter. Just the audit capability to look and see if we are doing the job the way we want to do it, to look critically at everything we do. I’m certainly not fearful of it. I worked with the L.A. Police Commission for many years, worked with an inspector general for many years in Los Angeles, and in both cases they were by no means an impediment to what we were doing and provided an extra set of eyes and a check-and-balance.

What about a Department of Justice consent decree?

Been there, yeah. I’m hopeful there may be some room for negotiation to come away with a document that will be a vehicle for positive change within the organization — but something that’s not viewed as onerous throughout the organization, where it actually has a negative impact on the ability to provide services.

Based on your service with the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, what went wrong in the big picture?

I grew up in policing alongside the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. I thought I knew that organization as well as any outsider could know it. When I heard the testimony for the jail commission about the pay-to-play, about the nepotism, the favoritism and in some cases brutality and corruption, that was not the LASD I knew. And so I saw that as a crisis in leadership — the fact that it was tolerated, and in some cases encouraged, when we heard the comments about ‘work in the gray.’ We don’t work in the gray. You need to be able to set clear expectations, you need to be able to put systems in place to measure behavior and performance, and you need to be able to hold people accountable for that. That’s leadership. That’s running a police department in a competent manner, and unfortunately that was deviated from for the past number of years in many cases.

Looking at how we move forward, we go in and it’s a new day. We start looking at restoring the shine on the badge, if you will. What that really comes down to is restoring the trust of the public we serve and the pride and the morale of the men and women of the organization as well.

How do you create the management culture to do that?

Policing is and always will be a people business, and when we forget that is when we start to go down the wrong path. It’s critical that everyone know what the expectations of them are and that we’re measuring performance to achieve the goals we all share.

During the campaign you spoke about ending mandatory jail duty and redeploying deputies into specialized tracks for field patrol, custody, the courts and public transportation.

The way it’s been done in the past has been that when you come into the organization from the academy you go into the jails, and most recently it’s been for up to seven years. That’s a long time. If you come on the job at 21, and you’re 28 by the time you hit the street, you’ve spend 25% of your life in custody.

The way you say that, it’s as if the deputies were locked up too.

If you’re in any role that you don’t want to be in — that you didn’t come on the job to do — then you’re crossing the days off a calendar as if you were somebody in custody. That’s not a great way to go to work every day. And then you get out finally into the field, but as soon as you promote again you go back and do your time, as they say, in the jail again.

Do deputies call it ‘doing your time’?

You’d have to ask the deputies, but it appears that way. If you get in trouble in the field, in many cases people have been sent from the field into the jail. One of your highest-liability parts of the organization is the jail. You have the largest jail system in America; 20% of your inmates are mentally ill. You need people in there who are experts at what they do. Instead it has been treated as a dumping ground for the organization: the new people went in there — either new on the job or new in rank — and people who weren’t able to get along in the field. What [the commission] recommended was to look at the jails as a specialty and try to recruit, hire and train people who want to work in the custody environment and give them a path to a meaningful career in that specialty.

When it comes to addressing the impacts of mental illness and homelessness, field deputies have been compared to first-contact social services workers and the jails have been called the largest mental health institutions in the nation. Is that a tenable situation, and how do you approach it?

I applaud [Los Angeles County District Attorney] Jackie Lacey for taking the lead on this whole issue of dealing with the mentally ill and not continuing to look at incarceration as the only option. I feel being sheriff of the largest county in America gives you the bully pulpit to bring public attention to the fact that about 20% of our jail population is people who are there because of acting out on their mental illness.

Jail is not the place to put somebody where they’ll get appropriate treatment and come out better, more stabilized, than when they went in. What we need is community-based mental health clinics. And we need community-based mental health courts to assess who needs to be incarcerated because they’re a danger to the community and who can be treated at the community level with whatever family support may be available. Right now we desperately lack those community resources.

We need to work more closely with the Department of Mental Health and all of the community-based organizations that deal with mental health and homelessness to create more of a web of resources rather than dozens of silos working very hard and trying to do the best job they can but not with an approach that is coordinated. The bottom line is there are not the resources necessary to deal with the scope of the problem, so we have a lot of work to do to be more cost-effective and more humane in the treatment of the mentally ill.

What about the state and county jurisdictional issues that have hampered addressing homeless encampments and crime in the Ballona Wetlands?  

In March, deputies confiscated four handguns while breaking up a bicycle theft ring.

We need to bring all the players to the table. Are there people living in there because they don’t feel like they have anywhere else to go? Provide them housing and do what we can in that regard. And for those who are committing crimes, do the job we traditionally do of enforcement. Talk to people and find out what’s going on. That’s just good old-fashioned police work.