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Crime & Justice

LA County Sheriff McDonnell on shooting into vehicles, Prop 47 savings, and more




Former Long Beach Police Department Chief Jim McDonnell became the first non-LASD member to head of the department in 100 years.
Former Long Beach Police Department Chief Jim McDonnell became the first non-LASD member to head of the department in 100 years.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told AirTalk on Tuesday that his agency had eight instances in 2015 where deputies shot into moving vehicles, highlighting a notable spike in that number compared to the years prior. A recent KPCC investigation revealed that there were nine instances between 2010 and 2014 in which deputies fired into moving vehicles. Why the sudden spike? And what is Sheriff McDonnell planning to do about it?

Plus, as more data comes in that helps us to understand the effects of Prop 47, we're getting a better look at how much money the initiative is actually saving the state by not incarcerating certain lower-level drug offenders. What kind of cost savings is the state looking at, and how does it compare with what the projections were?

We also spoke with the Sheriff about the recent conviction of former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, the resignation of his former chief of staff after an email scandal, and more.

Interview Highlights

I wanted to ask you about a recent report that was done by KPCC’s Annie Gilbertson about local law enforcement shooting into moving vehicles. Both LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department, as I understand it, have a general policy of avoiding shooting into moving vehicles. LAPD claims it shot into two vehicles during the years 2010-2014. In both incidents, officers said that the suspects were armed. With the Sheriff’s Department, there were nine times between 2010 and 2014 where deputies fired into the vehicles. In only one case was the person armed with a gun. What’s your response? Do you think those statistics are troubling?

It’s something I want to take a much closer look at. I’m thankful to KPCC for doing the study and giving us some data to look at. I looked at 2015, and we had eight incidents involving shooting at vehicles. Four of those eight incidents have been reviewed administratively by our executive force review committee. Two of those four cases reviewed by the committee contained policy violations, so we’ll deal with those within the system. Four cases in 2015 are still in the review process. There were two shooting-at-vehicle incidents so far in 2016, and they’re both still under review. I believe the unions are in the review process right now with a new and improved policy to make it clearer to folks what our expectations are with regard to shooting at moving vehicles. Across the board, I think there’s universal agreement that it’s not particularly effective, there is potential danger to bystanders and others, and if you can get out of the way of the moving vehicle that’s really goal number one.

So, typically in an investigation, if there is firing on a moving car, the key is going to be whether the deputy felt like he or she was under imminent threat of injury by the vehicle. Will that be the determinant here?

Ultimately, that would be for any use of force. For shooting at a moving vehicle, if the vehicle is the weapon and the individual is not posing an additional threat with a gun or some other type of weapon, our direction on that is do not shoot at the vehicle and move out of the way. We don’t say that universally. There are situations that could arise where it could be an appropriate use of force, where using force in that manner would stop their ability to hurt others. That’s very risky and it’s not a good practice overall, but there are some situations where you come down to the end of the line and you don’t have an alternative.

A new study out from the Automobile Club’s traffic safety foundation that found that had the 5 nanograms per liter of blood standard for THC, that there’s no real correlation between driving ability and that level of THC. Is this anything you’ve thought about, the best way to determine if someone is impaired by THC?

The way to measure it scientifically is certainly a giant help when it comes to prosecuting a case in court. We still have work to do on definitively stating what level of impairment is dangerous to your driving. I think the bigger picture is whenever we arrest anybody for being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, we do a field sobriety test and look for objective symptoms not necessarily tied to the blood alcohol level or the chemical in the body, but rather how did the person’s body behave to the test. We also have drug recognition experts who are trained specifically to be able to determine level of impairment.

Your chief of staff Tom Angel resigned last week after publication of emails he sent while the assistant [police] chief in Burbank. He’d forwarded jokes that made fun of different racial, ethnic, and religious groups. I know it’s a personnel matter, which limits what you can say, but in a case like that with an employee found responsible for something like this, why isn’t an apology sufficient?

Look at the business we’re in. It’s all based on our relationship with the communities we serve. Los Angeles County is probably one of the most diverse counties in the world. It’s critical that we have a great relationship with all of those communities to do our job as well as it can be done. I was quoted as saying that I did not intend to discipline, but the conversation actually was that I had to speak with county council to determine what discipline was available to us because happened four years prior and when he was with another organization. We’ve done a lot of community outreach and are looking at this as an opportunity for all of us to take away some lessons learned and to repair relationships with our community.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was convicted on federal charges last month. He was convicted of conspiring to obstruct justice while running the men’s jail. He’s scheduled to be sentenced next month and faces a maximum of 15 years in federal prison. How does the fallout from the prosecution and conviction affect your department today?

I can’t speak specifically about the case because the sentencing is ongoing, but it allows us to close a particularly troubling chapter in the department’s otherwise long history of providing essential public services in a professional and caring manner. When you look at the move forward, there are no changes that can be made in an environment like we operate in with the stroke of a pen. It’s a process. Arguably, the biggest challenge is keeping the best of a culture while changing what needs to be changed in order to be able to move forward. I’d use the analogy that it’s like changing the wheels on a moving vehicle, because the day-to-day operations continue while we try to affect the change that’s necessary.

We’re now deeper into the implementation of Prop 47. Some members of CA law enforcement believe property crime has gone up as a result of that, but studies have not been conclusive looking at the state as a whole. What’s your view about the impact of Prop 47 on the county?

I think it’s been framed in a way where you’re either for Prop 47 or against it. To be clear on that, we’ve embraced the intention of Prop 47, and all of us have the same goal that incarceration is not the solution in all cases. When you look at what Prop 47 was set up to do, it was to get people into treatment rather than incarcerate them. But there was no money frontloaded for the treatment part, and that was a major challenge. The funding provision takes effect mid-2016, but that’s procedural. The money will not flow to the county for treatment programs until 2017.

When you look at the cost savings they were looking to realize to be able to fund the treatment programs, they’re looking at $19 million for the whole state. When you look at that number, it may sound like a lot of money but it doesn’t go far. $19 million would run the L.A. County for 52 hours. It costs us $365,000 per hour, or $8.7 million a day to be able to operate. That $19 million is for the whole state, and we don’t know what proportion we’d get of that $19 million. We’re hoping they’ll do it based on population. We’ve got about a quarter of the state’s population and likewise about a quarter of the inmate population within the state as well.

There’s also been talk about the declining population within the jail system due to [Prop 47] and the money that should be saved as a result. Although we have fewer people coming in the front door, the population we’re managing that’s increasing is the mentally ill population, which has increased an average of 60 percent over the last five years, and over the next ten years it’s projected to double.

How is it that the state is only identifying $19 million in savings under Prop 47? The claim is that the thousands of people who would have been in custody like drug dealers and lower level offenders have been released. $19 million dollars isn’t a lot of people being released.

That’s true. Using L.A. County as an example, there’s an expectation that we would have a tremendous amount of bed space available based on Prop 47’s effects. The reality is, previous to implementation of Prop 47, people who were sentenced to L.A. County jail were only being held for 20 percent of their time due to overcrowding issues. So as fewer people come in the front door, we’re able to hold those individuals in custody for a longer period of their sentence, which we’re mandated to do. The only way we can release them earlier is in an overcrowding emergency.

 

Listen to the rest of the interview by clicking the "play" button.

Guest:

Jim McDonnell, Sheriff of Los Angeles County; he tweets from @LACoSheriff