About a decade ago, when Todd Rogers was a newly appointed Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department captain at the station in Carson, he was summoned to a nearby casino where an assistant sheriff was waiting for him in a special room.
"I had to go behind a velvet rope to get into this place,” Rogers says. “I was scared to death.”
Rogers says the superior officer, whom he declines to name, noted that captains hold the authority to choose which companies receive lucrative Sheriff's Department towing contracts in their jurisdictions. He wanted Rogers to “strongly consider” giving an exclusive contract to a company the assistant sheriff described as “very supportive of the department and the sheriff.”
“I didn't want the one tow company,” Rogers said. “I told him no.”
Rogers, now an assistant sheriff himself, says it’s an example of how he has stood up to the cronyism and corruption that's plagued the department. It’s an agency that's also grappling with inmate abuse at the jails, allegations of racist policing in the Antelope Valley and bad hiring practices.
"A lot of us were just horrified as we saw this stuff going on,” Rogers says. “We were powerless to stop it.”
‘I did not sell my soul’
Rogers, 52, is relatively new to the position of assistant sheriff. Only a handful of people hold that rank, which is just below the undersheriff — the number two person in the department.
Last year, then-Sheriff Lee Baca promoted Rogers to assistant cheriff from his rank as commander, leapfrogging the rank of chief. Some have accused Rogers of cutting a deal with Baca by promising not to run against him. Rogers had been weighing a challenge to the powerful sheriff for several years.
“I did not sell my soul,” Rogers says. “I agreed to help him reform the Department.”
When Baca abruptly resigned in January, he named Rogers as a “highly qualified” candidate, prompting some to suggest he is too close to the old regime to be a reformer.
Rogers says while he respected the sheriff for some of his policies, there clearly was a “catastrophic failure of leadership.” He and Baca had “plenty of differences,” especially over the sheriff’s penchant for pet programs. One program involved assigning deputies to monitor social media.
“We had over 400 deputies on loan from street patrols to these unfunded programs,” said Rogers, who oversees the department $2.8 billion budget.
Seeing crime as a health issue
Like his fellow candidates, Rogers doesn’t have much name recognition with voters. But his campaign got some attention for a hilarious online ad featuring the cast of Comedy Central's former sitcom "Reno 911." Rogers knows the cast because the show was taped at the Carson station.
This isn't to suggest Rogers isn't a serious law enforcement executive. He's one of a growing number willing to look at crime as a health problem.
The 28-year veteran, who holds a master's degree in criminal justice from Cal State Dominguez Hills, described how he began a program where a deputy developed customized treatment plans for at-risk kids and young adults in collaboration with a panel of community-based experts in Carson.
“We can’t have one cure for every disease,” Rogers says. “We can’t have one cure for every kid or young adult that shows an inclination to be a gang member."
Rogers' intellect has caught the attention of colleagues. Former Detective Sgt. Dan Scott, who headed the department's special victims unit, recalled presenting a child homicide case to Rogers.
"I was really impressed with the specifics of his questions,” Scott said. “Not a lot of people within law enforcement in general really get the intricacies of child abuse cases and child homicide cases."
Lakewood roots, mixed-race heritage
When Rogers graduated from college, he wanted to be a high school social studies teacher and coach girls’ softball. That changed when he saw the excitement of policing during a ride-along with a sheriff's deputy.
Raised in Lakewood and Carson by a single mother and grandfather from Mexico, Rogers recalled the adoption of a sister who was born across the border.
"I watched her and my mom struggle to get her citizenship for 20 years,” Rogers said. That's why he's always opposed handing over low-level criminals to immigration authorities for deportation, Rogers said.
Rogers also recalled his white mother joining an African-American singing group that met at their house — triggering another lesson in diversity and tolerance.
“We had people who looked down their noses at my family because of how we were configured and who we associated with," Rogers said.
Rogers still lives in Lakewood, a city of 80,000 residents that sits just north of Long Beach. He helped organize an education foundation there and he's in his third term as the city's mayor.
Lakewood Councilman Steve Croft told of one raucous meeting that drew 500 angry residents divided over RV parking on city streets.
"Todd always kept his cool,” Croft said. “I think he just has the presence and is able to take the energy down enough and work through issues.”
If elected sheriff, Rogers says he'll invite the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate the agency's practices and help craft solutions. The federal government is already investigating the department. A grand jury has issued 21 indictments involving alleged civil rights violations and corruption.
Rogers also supports the creation of a citizens' commission to watchdog the massive department, which employs 18,000 people and patrols 42 cities and all of the county’s unincorporated areas. The panel would be in addition to the newly-created inspector general.
Rogers dismissed the idea that the Department needs an outsider to take over as sheriff. He maintains he is uniquely qualified to root out the bad managers at the Sheriff’s Department.
"The beauty of being an insider … is I know exactly who they are," Rogers said.