LA County Interim Sheriff John Scott will not be a 'placeholder' once Baca retires

Orange County Undersheriff John Scott (podium) was named interim sheriff of Los Angeles County on January 28, 2014.
Orange County Undersheriff John Scott (podium) was named interim sheriff of Los Angeles County on January 28, 2014.
Rina Palta/KPCC

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When Orange County Undersheriff John Scott takes the helm of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on Thursday — the largest jail system in the country and one of the nation’s biggest patrol forces — he will not be a "placeholder," he told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.

Scott said that, even though he will only spend months as sheriff, he does not plan to sit idly. “I can assure you, as has been said, I will not be a placeholder here in L.A. County," Scott said. "I will begin the process immediately of restoring both the dignity to the men and women of L.A. County, and the confidence and the trust with the public that we serve.”

On Tuesday, with four votes, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors picked Scott as the new interim sheriff to replace retiring Sheriff Lee Baca. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas abstained from the vote.

Scott takes over on Thursday when the embattled Baca officially leaves the department he ran for 15 years.

L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina says she likes Scott’s track record of implementing change.

“There were many aspects besides the experience that he had here in L.A. County with the sheriff’s department that were impressive,” Molina said. “But by far the fact that he took on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and was involved in reforms there. He is no stranger to it.”

Former deputies describe John Scott as a "stand-up guy" – a leader who delegates authority, but still takes a hands-on approach to problem solving.

RELATEDUpdate: Sheriff Baca to retire; LAPD deputy chief considering run

The sheriff's department has been riddled with controversy for the past couple of years. Last month, the U.S. Attorneys Office in Los Angeles announced criminal charges against 18 employees. And last year, a Blue Ribbon panel reported a culture of deputy-on-inmate violence in L.A. County jails.

L.A. County supervisors said they expect Scott – who spent 36 years with the department and joined Orange County in 2008 – to accomplish real reforms. Scott said an additional challenge will be leading the department through what could be a rancorous election season.

So far, seven candidates have announced they will run for sheriff in the June election to replace Baca. At least five are either current officials at the department, or recent retirees. 

"So you're going to have some split, in terms of division within the ranks," Scott said. "So that's going to be my first challenge, getting everyone moving in the same direction."

Scott said he will return to his Orange County post – from which he's taking a leave of absence – when a new sheriff is elected. That can happen as early as the June primary if a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. If not, voters will vote in a runoff in November and Scott will remain in office until December.

Scott's current boss, Orange County Sheriff Sandy Hutchens, is another alum of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. She said Scott is a hands-on, proactive leader. But he can't run the place by himself.

“Even though he grew up in that agency, it is a very large department,” Hutchens said. “It’s difficult to get your arms around, so you must have people in the right places who you can trust to do the job.”

She said Scott is well positioned for the job because of his professional qualities, and also because he has worked with a lot of the command staff in the department.

Robert Costa, a retired lieutenant with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and a current reserve deputy, worked with Scott when he was the captain of the Carson station. 

"He's a well known, well respected person in the sheriff's department," Costa said. "He's always looking for ideas that'll benefit the community, the department, cut costs, and improve the services that are provided."

Costa said Scott's breadth of work at the sheriff's department –which spanned from patrol stations, to work with politicians, to ultimately running the jails – should help him run such a complex department.