Crime & Justice

Jim McDonnell calls for fresh start for LA County Sheriff's office

Shortly after his swearing in, new L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he's happy to hear about the White House's plan to use federal funding to supply body cameras to officers.
Shortly after his swearing in, new L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he's happy to hear about the White House's plan to use federal funding to supply body cameras to officers.
Erika Aguilar/ KPCC

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Former Long Beach police chief Jim McDonnell promised a fresh start Monday after being sworn in as the 32nd L.A. County Sheriff.

“I stand before you today proud to wear the tan and green that represents over a century of tradition,” McDonnell said in remarks after the official ceremony.

He promised to repair divisions within the department, invest in training and supervision, modernize police technology, and welcome community oversight.

The L.A. Sheriff’s Department has been tangled in a knot of controversies over the past few years: A special committee two years ago found deputies beat and humiliated jail inmates. Federal Department of Justice oversight is imminent because of poor treatment of the mentally ill. A handful of deputies were convicted of obstructing an FBI investigation into the jails. Morale is low.

“Today, we have the opportunity to start fresh, to hit the reset button and welcome in a new era at the Sheriff’s Department,” McDonnell said.

For decades, it has always been a senior leader from within the Sheriff’s Department who was either handed the five gold stars or chosen to run for sheriff.

That’s not the case this time. McDonnell rose through the ranks at a different agency — the Los Angeles Police Department — before leaving to become city police chief in Long Beach.

During his speech Monday, McDonnell spoke directly to the 18,000 L.A.S.D. deputies and employees, promising to develop a culture that rewards character, competence, and merit when considering promotions.

He said the department would treat jail custody duties as equally important to patrol duties.

McDonnell explained that during the election campaign some deputies criticized his pledge of “restoring the shine to the badge.” Deputies felt like it was only a few rogue officers whose badges were dull.

But in his speech, McDonnell said, “the public sees just one badge … and one that has been diminished in the eyes of some by events of the past that we need to put behind us."

The L.A. Sheriff laid out some plans he has in the coming months:

McDonnell said he wanted to hear the good and the bad news of the department. “No leader can fix things that he doesn’t know about or that subordinates are afraid to tell him,” he said.

“He was very clear as to what he expects from the employees,” said former L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca who sat in the front row at Monday’s ceremony.

Baca was criticized by the jail violence commission for being a detached and uninformed boss who enabled deputies to get away with inmate abuse. Baca said he didn’t take anything McDonnell said personal.

“I always held myself responsible,” Baca said. “Whatever goes wrong is going to be part of my responsibility and it will be a part of his. That will be the difficult point in time. You can give all the instruction in the world to your subordinates but someone will make a mistake.”

Inspector General Max Huntsman said he liked that McDonnell spoke directly to the deputies calling the new Sheriff’s message “supportive and demanding at the same time.”

Huntsman said he met with McDonnell before he was elected but is looking forward to hammering out details on establishing a civilian oversight board and department transparency.

“Of course, my office believes complete transparency is critical,” Huntsman said. “We need to have access to everything that’s legally appropriate and I hope he agrees.”