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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Race for LA County sheriff: 1st public debate brings out the barbs

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Six of the seven candidates for Los Angeles County Sheriff exchanged barbs Wednesday night in their first public debate of the campaign. The candidates held an earlier debate that was only open to members of the deputies union.

“The fish rots from the head down,” said former sheriff’s Commander Bob Olmsted.

The criticism pointed in part at his old boss and now one of his opponents, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Olmsted has said he attempted to tell Tanaka and former Sheriff Lee Baca about deputies abusing jail inmates but they ignored him.

A federal grand jury has indicted 15 current and former sheriff’s officials in connection with problems at the jails. Another five deputies have been indicted on corruption charges. The investigation is ongoing.

“I blew the whistle on the corruption and the wrongdoing at the sheriff’s department that led to the FBI investigation,” Olmsted said. “I will not tolerate dishonesty” if elected sheriff.

RELATED: New sheriff in town: A look at potential successors to LA Sheriff Lee Baca

Tanaka, a controversial figure blamed by a blue ribbon panel for failing to stop inmate abuse, did not directly respond. But another candidate who is a leader in the department, Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold, challenged Olmsted, who once commanded Men’s Central Jail.

“He was in charge when all of this occurred, so he already has tolerated malfeasance,” Hellmold said. “He was an ineffective leader.”

Hellmold, who was named by Baca as a potential successor, said he has already implemented changes at the jail to reduce use of force against inmates. But the 25-year-veteran also said the agency’s problems have been overstated.

“The sheriff’s department has had some successful accomplishments, despite a lot of the negativity brought up by some of the other individuals here,” Hellmold said. He pointed to a lower crime rate.

Tanaka agreed. He said any problems at the jails resulted in part from a lack of resources inside “one of the most violent places on earth.”

He went on to say: “They’re woefully understaffed.” He promised to lobby the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for money to hire more deputies.

Tanaka’s supporters – many of them retired deputies decked out in bright red or blue t-shirts – filled nearly half the room at the Van Nuys Civic Center. The Van Nuys Neighborhood Council sponsored the debate.

Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, who’s won key endorsements from LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, promised to bring reform to a department that’s faced problems ranging from hiring unqualified deputies to racial profiling.

“I’d bring in a fresh perspective as an outsider,” said McDonnell, a former LAPD assistant chief who had a hand in reforming that department. “I have no relationships within the organization.”

McDonnell said he was refusing campaign donations from sheriff’s deputies. He also promised that if elected, he would to create an audit bureau that would more closely track deputy behavior.

Tanaka said McDonnell’s lack of knowledge of the department, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country, is a liability. Tanaka also touted his management experience as mayor of Gardena and training as a certified public accountant.

“The job of sheriff is too big and too important for on the job training,” the former undersheriff said.  

Other candidates accused McDonnell of being “an opportunist,” waiting to run only after Baca stepped down in January amid mounting problems.

Former Sheriff’s Lt. Patrick Gomez, who ran for sheriff in 1998 and 2002, said he’s been raising the alarm about the department for a long time.

“I’ve been talking about these issues,” said Gomez, who promised a tough hand toward misconduct. “I won’t tolerate unethical conduct.”

Gomez said he’d ask the FBI to conduct a forensic audit of the Sheriff’s Department. He said a newly created inspector general “has no authority” and is “a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

The other candidates said they supported the creation of the inspector general, but none were specific about the access they would provide him. Watchdogs have emphasized that access is key to effective civilian oversight.

Another candidate, LAPD Detective Lou Vince said he’d expand the use of electronic eyes to ensure deputies behaved properly.

“I want to see video cameras in the cars. I want to see cameras on deputy’s lapels," Vince said. "I want to see cameras in every inch of the jail and every Sheriff’s Department facility.”

One member of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council asked whether the candidates would issue more concealed weapons permits, following a federal court ruling that said law-abiding residents need only show a desire for self-defense to obtain a permit. Currently, California law requires people show they are in a “clear and present danger.”

Three candidates – Tanaka, Gomez and Vince – said they were eager to issue more concealed weapons permits. (The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has issued about 340.)

“I support the fact that being able to possess a weapon…is a right and not a privilege,” Tanaka said.

Three other candidates – McDonnell, Hellmold and Olmsted – expressed more caution. They said the county should wait for the expected appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

“I do not want more firearms in the street,” Hellmold said.

Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers did not participate in the debate. The primary election is June 3. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will compete in the November General Election.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier headline said this was the first debate. It was actually the second debate among candidates, but the first public debate. KPCC regrets the error.

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