Crime & Justice

Election 2014: LA Sheriff frontrunner cautious on citizen oversight

LA County Sheriff's candidate Jim McDonnell stops to speak with an activist after a forum at East LA College. His opponent, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, did not attend.
LA County Sheriff's candidate Jim McDonnell stops to speak with an activist after a forum at East LA College. His opponent, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, did not attend.
Frank Stoltze

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Jim McDonnell, the frontrunner for Los Angeles County Sheriff, is not yet prepared to support subpoena power for a proposed citizen’s oversight panel – authority watchdogs say is important to reforming the troubled department.

“I would not want to weigh in on that at this point,” the Long Beach Police Chief told an audience of about 150 people at a forum at East LA College Saturday. “I would want to hear what the legal options are.”

He noted that the LAPD’s Police Commission lacks subpoena power. “They were able to get what they needed to get,” he said. McDonnell was the LAPD’s second in command before moving to Long Beach in 2010.

McDonnell has won praise for his support of a commission to oversee the sprawling Sheriff’s Department and its jails, which are under multiple federal civil rights investigations. The Board of Supervisors rejected the idea earlier this year. It is expected to take it up again after two new members take their seats in December.

But watchdog groups believe any citizens’ panel must hold subpoena authority – the ability to force sheriff’s officials to testify – to effectively oversee the Sheriff’s Department.

“We think subpoena power is key to long-lasting accountability,” said Mark-Anthony Johnson, co-director of Dignity and Power Now.

“We’re really looking to shift power in a way that gives the community the ability to highlight issues in the jails with excessive force and with medical neglect for the mentally ill,” said Johnson.

McDonnell also said he hadn’t decided on another important issue: whether a newly appointed county inspector general should be granted access to Sheriff personnel records.

Inspector General Max Huntsman has said such access is critical to his oversight of the department. Interim Sheriff John Scott has refused to provide it, citing the confidentiality of police disciplinary records.

At the forum, McDonnell drew frowns from immigrants rights activists in the room when he said he supported the county board’s decision to extend the Sheriff’s  cooperation with federal immigration officials under the 287 (g) program. At the same time, he said he’d be willing to review the issue.

“It’s not something I would close the door on, but its something I would want to get into the office and study,” said McDonnell, who, as the heavily favored candidate, has escaped the normal pressures from a strong opponent to state policy positions.

McDonnell faces former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in the race for sheriff. Tanaka, who also serves as the mayor of Gardena, placed second in the primary election with 15 percent of the vote. McDonnell won 49 percent.

Tanaka has declined to debate McDonnell during the general election campaign. He did not attend Saturday’s forum, which was sponsored by a wide variety of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Youth Justice Coalition and the Los Angeles County Business Federation.

Tanaka has raised far less campaign cash than McDonnell. During a three-month period ending September 30, he raised about $18,000. McDonnell raised about $416,000.

Tanaka has attended some community meetings, but mostly has stayed out of view of the news media. There is no traditional banner touting his candidacy outside his campaign headquarters in an industrial section of El Monte. Nobody answered the door there late Saturday afternoon.

Tanaka has not returned repeated calls and emails from KPCC requesting comment. In the past, he has said his three decades with the Sheriff's Department make him better suited to now lead it.