Four Years Ago, the LA Times Endorsed McDonnell For Sheriff. How’s He Doing?

Four years ago this weekend, the Los Angeles Times endorsed Jim McDonnell to be Los Angeles County Sheriff. We appreciated that endorsement at the time and voted for McDonnell. But after four years and $14-or-so billion dollars, we thought it was time for a progress report.  (Daily News, we’ll get to yours next!)

“Los Angeles County voters are soon to pick a new sheriff…and it’s hard to overstate both how unusual and how momentous that is,” the Times said at the time. With no entrenched incumbent running or embraced by LA’s political kingmakers, “this new state of affairs, with voters rather than power brokers or the law enforcement establishment setting the Sheriff’s Department’s course, may turn out to be permanent. Or it may be a mere interlude in a long and continuing history of entrenched incumbency and unaccountability.”

Four years later, the situation is the same. With McDonnell’s political relations far weaker, voter financial support a quarter what it was then, and no felon to run against, the incumbent is not entrenched or strongly supported by LA’s political kingmakers. Moreover, given McDonnell’s aggressive lack of campaigningrefusal to participate in debates, and stonewalling the media—including the Times on public record requests, the current sheriff’s election strategy indeed does appear to be: entrenched incumbency and unaccountability. In fact, we believe the voters retain their power to drive needed reform.

“Either way, the decision voters will make…comes at a crucial time, culminating a period of rare public scrutiny of the Sheriff’s Department’s management, hiring, spending, internal discipline, candor and, especially, use of force against jail inmates and visitors,” the Times continued. “The election decision will have an impact for years to come.”

Here again, we are in much the same place as we were four years ago. While serious uses of force by deputies against inmates are down in the jails, serious problems continue, while assaults by inmates are way up. Though crime is down in some areas, it’s up significantly in others—while McDonnell himself has recently said that crime statistics are inaccurate and do not reflect crimes which, post Proposition 47, people are simply not reporting because they have lost confidence in the justice system to do anything about them.  Little progress has been made in expanding the department’s mental health teams–including improvements which could have been implemented immediately, such as having them respond with lights/siren to mental health crises rather than long after patrol deputies have arrived.  While McDonnell cites understaffing as an excuse, that has not prevented him from dramatically up-staffing his personal office, including assigning himself 6-8 drivers and numerous aides.

Worse, McDonnell has been accused of manipulating or selectively promoting crime stats. As this site has reported exhaustively, spending by the sheriff on the perks of his office is out of control (herehere and here), particularly when the Department is significantly over its budget. Hiring remains unable to keep up with attrition and the sheriff appears uninterested in the reasons why (a position echoed by Brian Moriguchi just last week).

“The pivotal question before voters is whether they believe the department is emerging from a chaotic but limited period in which professional standards broke down, and that with Sheriff Lee Baca’s departure and the continuing implementation of reforms urged by a citizens commission, it is now well on its way to recovery; or if instead it is continuing on a decades-long path that promotes cliques, secrecy and abuse, and needs a sweeping and dramatic change in culture,” the Times asked four years ago.

Here, the results are also underwhelming. While deputy cliques were broken up by the criminal cases and by Interim Sheriff Scott, Sheriff McDonnell has surrounded himself with loyalists of Paul Tanaka (see: here and here).  Though we get this because many of those loyal to Tanaka were talented, competent leaders impatient with the department’s drift under an often distracted Sheriff Baca, many have also shown tremendous ability to insulate and manipulate the sheriff: now, just as then.  And now, just as then, the sheriff has been all to happy too embrace comforting fantasies.

While deputy sheriffs are being investigated and terminated at astounding rates (often on flimsy evidence and with significant, reportedly at times fatal consequences on their lives), as the Times itself has reported, the sheriff has promoted ambitious “executives” with questionable judgment and relationships with the truth.

All the while, a number of McDonnell’s hand-selected leaders have resigned in disgrace (here and here) and while reports of serious misconduct by deputy sheriffs–including recently hired deputy sheriffs–remains alarmingly high (herehereherehere and here).  Meanwhile, many former deputies and leaders are suing the sheriff/county, including former Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers, who is alleging retaliation.  Certainly, if the Times was suggesting four years ago that LASD needed a “dramatic change in culture,” other than an internal chilling effect, that has not occurred.

“But if the department’s problems are not that recent or simple — and the evidence is overwhelming that they are not — what is needed is a candidate with the law enforcement credentials, the integrity, the backbone and the skills to march the deputies, their leaders and their culture through a rigorous and soul-searching reinvention, all while raising performance standards and recommitting the department to transparency and humane and constitutional treatment of suspects, inmates and the public at large,” the Times argued.

What LASD needed four years ago was an inspiring leader who could retain what made the institution great—and beloved in most of the communities (and particularly contract cities) in which it operates—who had the vision to chart a compelling future and the judgment and charisma to effectively sell it.

Other than causing everybody to fear for their jobs, McDonnell isn’t marching anybody anywhere. The only soul searching is about what other lines of work people might want to get into. Deputy productivity is way down, morale is at a historic low and transparency is worse than ever—with our media sources telling us that LASD is stonewalling on and selectively responding to public record requests at this very moment.

Indeed, because of his refusal to be transparent, to allow the community in, McDonnell was arguably the villain of KPCC’s recent REPEAT podcast which focused on the department’s controlling and politicized conduct in handling deputy-involved shootings.  In one memorable moment (in episode 5), when reporter Annie Gilbertson asked McDonnell why deputies involved in shootings were being assigned menial tasks, he cut her off and dismissed her like a child.  Yet, she was right and he was wrong.  And this is a bit of a thing with him.  We wonder if he apologized…

And as for “constitutional policing”, while it is mainly true and certainly positive that inmates are not being routinely abused, department employees are. In fact, immediately upon entering office Sheriff McDonnell instituted policies barring subordinates from disagreeing with him, he is extremely controlling about speaking to the media, he has made materially false statements to the media about transparency, and no progress has been made on body cameras. Indeed, this site was formed as a response to the Department’s lack of accountability and transparency. The internal and external hunger for those things is evident in the nearly 40,000 hits the site has received in just six weeks.

“It is also important to note [McDonnell’s] long relationship with community groups, including law enforcement critics. Repairing relationships between the Sheriff’s Department and the communities it serves must be a priority, not merely as a nice complement to strong leadership but as an essential component of it,” the Times wrapped up.

Yet, McDonnell’s community relations have atrophied tremendously in just four years. He recently disrespected our African American community by no-showing at a First AME church event and, after receiving the support of Hispanic churches four years ago, he dropped off their radar until just weeks ago when his representatives reportedly came calling for cash. Just two weeks ago, McDonnell blew off both the ACLU of Southern California and KPCC’s Frank Stoltze, no-showing their debate and failing to even respond to the invite.

“This is a department that for decades has been inadequate to the task of constitutional policing and jailing. It needs a reboot. It needs McDonnell.”

LASD needed all of those things four years ago. It still does. McDonnell was the right choice at the time; he had the most experience, the most gravitas, and he wasn’t going to federal prison. In the job itself, however, he has choked. He has failed to deliver the transparency and community engagement he promised. He hasn’t done a good job of keeping the public, inmates or his own personnel safe.  

McDonnell has held himself and those around him to one standard and everyone else to another.  We were excited to see what an outsider could bring to LASD four years ago.  But it hasn’t worked out.  McDonnell’s Father Knows Best attitude has not worked inside the nearly 170 year old LASD.  Never having worked in a sheriff’s patrol car (nor having pursued the opportunity to do so since arriving), he has no idea how it is different from an LAPD one. Never having worked in a custody environment, he has no credibility in attempting to lead those who do. He has been proudly incurious about how the department functions and how it is fundamentally different from other places he has been.

McDonnell is LAPD command-and-control; LASD, from its roots, has always been about empowering the deputy sheriff on the street, and letting them grow as leaders. LASD’s problems stem from bad leadership, not bad intentions.  Being the sheriff is more than putting on a tan shirt and green trousers; it is a presence which inspires people to follow.  McDonnell expects people to follow him because of his experience elsewhere, and his rank, yet when good men and women get hurt in his service, he is seldom to be seen.  This is widely noticed and is not the sort of thing a leader can recover from.  Enduring change at LASD can only occur from the bottom up, as instilled by somebody the rank and file want to follow.

McDonnell, long ago, wore out both his honeymoon and his welcome and is now unable to drive further change.

In a separate editorial two years ago, the Times said McDonnell deserved a bit more time to get the train on the tracks and moving again.  He deserved “a bit more patience.  For now.”

As we noted at the top, the Times argued four years ago that LASD needed to get away from simply recycling incumbents.  And as we’ve seen, the sheriff has consciously avoided making an affirmative case for his reelection, deliberately relying on inertia.  This isn’t the accountability we were promised.  To not even see the incumbent participate in the debate, to make his case for the future–the contempt of it all–it’s a deal-breaker for us.  Our patience is up.

People are losing their confidence in the system. People are getting hurt. People are getting killed. LASD desperately needs (and wants) a reboot.

But someone else is going to have to do it.

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