May 27, 2018

OPINION: Jim McDonnell—A New Sheriff in Town


On June 3 I’m voting for Jim McDonnell for Los Angeles County Sheriff and I want to tell you why.

The Sheriff’s Department is Topanga’s lifeline because it keeps our community safe. But the department has a cancer eating away from the inside that if left unchecked will cripple its ability to serve Topanga and the rest of the county.

The Sheriff’s Department has come under blistering criticism over the past couple of years for corruption of the worst kind – enabling gangs of Sheriff’s deputies who beat inmates under a code of silence. And that’s just the tip of an iceberg of abuse of power and misconduct that was documented in 2012 by the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence.

Long Beach Police Chief, Jim McDonnell, who was a member of the Commission, is the leading contender for Los Angeles County Sheriff. I’ve known him since 1993 when he was a young LAPD lieutenant in Community Policing. I was just starting a top-to-bottom study of the LAPD that was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. My UCLA-USC team examined the LAPD under Chiefs Willie Williams, Bernard Parks, and Bill Bratton and chronicled the department’s struggle to straighten up and fly right.

McDonnell played a key role leading this once-notorious police department through the most turbulent period in its history. He was Bratton’s right hand man, guiding the LAPD from a stormy past with citizens, to the improved police department that it has become. McDonnell laid down the blueprint for community policing that Bratton followed.

I’ve examined the LAPD as closely as anyone, and I’ve spent a lot of time with the brass and with cops on the streets (look for my book next year). I have seen first hand that McDonnell is a smart, compassionate, and tough man. Some police chiefs lack a feel for street cops, but McDonnell’s reputation for leadership extends deeply into the ranks. Whenever his name comes up in conversation, LAPD cops speak about him with affection and respect.

In 2008, I invited McDonnell to teach a course with me at UCLA, a course that continued for three years until he became the Chief of Police in Long Beach. Teaching with someone tells you a lot about that person from how he or she treats students. McDonnell challenged the UCLA students to think critically and students’ learning was always in the foremost of his mind.

Later, in 2012, McDonnell played a key role on the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence that uncovered the corruption of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department right up to Lee Baca and made recommendations how to fix it. He knows the Sheriff’s Department’s problems and what has to be done.

McDonnell has a long string of endorsers from our own supervisor Zev Yarovslosky to others on the county board including Gloria Molina, Don Knabe, and Mike Antonovich. He has been endorsed by most of the important newspapers in Southern California, most recently on April 30, 2014 by the Los Angeles Times.

For those of you who missed it, the Los Angeles Times said, “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. McDonnell is noteworthy for his emphasis on respect—for the public and for the officers he leads.”

Six other men are running for the job but none measure up. All but one are Sheriff’s Department insiders (the outsider, LAPD detective Lou Vince, looks like a comer but he lacks experience).

Assistant sheriffs Jim Hellmold and Todd Rogers have served well but they’ve grown up in the toxic environment. The Sheriff’s Department needs a complete makeover and fresh leadership at the top.

Retired commander Bob Olmstead was an important whistle-blower but he lacks executive level knowledge to lead this 18,000-person organization. And, retired lieutenant Pat Gomez, who has already run twice for Sheriff, lacks experience.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone takes the candidacy of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka seriously. Tanaka who ran the department while Baca looked the other way, was at the center of abuses documented by in the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. Tanaka claims the blue-ribbon commission’s report was a “hit job”. The Los Angeles Times called Tanaka’s candidacy “laughable” adding that he “is exactly the wrong person to lead the Sheriff's Department forward.”

When Zev Yaroslovsky endorsed McDonnell he said that we need, “somebody who can come in with a clean slate, even somebody from outside the department, who can take a new look at the department, whose got experience in reforming troubled departments, and someone who’s got the courage to make the decisions that need to be made. Jim McDonnell is the person I believe who will make the best Sheriff for Los Angeles County.”

So much depends on this election because whoever is elected Sheriff will be with us for years to come and his impact will be felt in Topanga as well as throughout the county.

I can say without reservation that my friend Jim McDonnell is someone whom Topangans can trust to safeguard our unique community and I urge you to vote for him on June 3.

Buzz Wilms is Professor Emeritus in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Co-Director of the Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles. He has lived in Topanga since 1988.