Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

5 things to look for in LA County Sheriff’s debate

Whoever is elected L.A. County Sheriff will inherit serious problems that have plagued the jail system.
Whoever is elected L.A. County Sheriff will inherit serious problems that have plagued the jail system. Corey Bridwell/KPCC

Candidates in the hotly contested race for Los Angeles County Sheriff face off in their first public debate Wednesday night (7 p.m., Van Nuys Civic Center).

The office of sheriff is enormously powerful. It oversees 9,000 sworn deputy sheriffs, 9,000 civilian employees, the sprawling jail system, security on the Metro bus and rail lines, court bailiffs, and contracts to provide policing in 44 cities.

The sheriff of L.A. County also wields tremendous political influence, with everyone from the governor to state legislators to local city council candidates seeking his or her endorsement.

RELATED: Profiles of the seven candidates

This is a particularly critical election for sheriff. Whoever wins will take over a department facing multiple FBI investigations into corruption and civil rights abuses at the jails. Myriad problems prompted Lee Baca to resign as sheriff in January. The primary election is June 3.

Here are the contenders:

  • Former Sheriff’s Lt. Patrick Gomez
  • Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold
  • Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell
  • Former Sheriff’s Commander Bob Olmsted
  • Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers*
  • Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka
  • LAPD Sergeant Lou Vince

Here are five things to look for when the candidates come together to debate the issues:

1 — Can they articulate their views in a compelling manner in front of voters? They all are experienced law enforcement officials. But how will they fare as candidates for public office? Two hold elective office now, but their positions hardly compare to the office of sheriff (Tanaka is mayor of Gardena; Rogers is a councilman in Lynwood).

2 — How will the candidates characterize the problems at the department? Will they agree with the blue ribbon Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence and other watchdogs that a culture of unaccountability and code of silence persists, and that it extends beyond the jails and includes deputy cliques involved in misconduct? Or will the candidates maintain, as many at the department insist, that the problems are limited to a few bad apples?

3 — One of the key recommendations by the Jail Violence commission was the creation of a separate custody division that would hire and train personnel solely for the purpose of acting as jail guards. Currently, deputies spend their first few years in the department as jail guards. The labor union – the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs – has been resistant to the change. Will the candidates commit to implementing this reform?

4 — Will the candidates commit to more civilian oversight? Will they commit to fully cooperating with the newly created Inspector General, providing him access to all sheriff’s facilities and legally available records? Will they support the creation of a citizen’s oversight board, a proposal now being considered by the Board of Supervisors?

5 — What will questions from the audience be? People tend to care more about response times and crime rates — not how deputies treat jail inmates or the nitty-gritty of department reform. With recent publicity about all of the problems at the department, will voters start asking different questions?

*Rogers is not attending the Wednesday night debate.

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