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New LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell talks about restoring public trust

Los Angeles County Sheriff candidate Jim McDonnell speaks to supporters during his election party on Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2014 at the JW Marriott at LA Live.
Los Angeles County Sheriff candidate Jim McDonnell speaks to supporters during his election party on Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2014 at the JW Marriott at LA Live.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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There's a new sheriff in town. 

He's Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, who won 75 percent of the vote Tuesday night. McDonnell fills the seat left behind by Lee Baca, who retired in January after 15 years in the role. He's also the first person to be hired from outside the department in almost a century.

Jim McDonnell joins Take Two to talk about what his top priorities will be as he steps into the role and what it's like to be an LA County Sheriff's Department outsider.



You called this a defining moment for the department last night. What did you mean by that?

It absolutely is. We're at a crossroads with the L.A. County Sheriffs Department. The bulk of the rank and file members of the organization are solid hardworking people trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the badge was tarnished by a relative few within the organization. We saw what happened with the jails. I sat on the jails commission and dug into that for a year. Now we've got the Department of Justice looking at that. I think we're at a position where we have the ability to put a team together to restore public trust in a great organization and pride and morale in the organization so we can get the job done as well as it can be done.

You have been described as a roll up your sleeves kind of guy. How would you describe your guiding philosophy as you take on this position?

To get in there and really set the tone right from the top. We want a hardworking department, one that is viewed as being one of integrity, one that has a foundation based on respect from those within the organization and everybody we deal with in the jails and in the communities.

You are the first Sheriff to be elected from outside the department in almost a century. What advantage do you think that gives you, as an outsider?

I think it allows me to have a different perspective than someone who's grown up in the organization; a fresh set of eyes, if you will. The benefit is, now being the sheriff, you have the ability to lead that organization. But having spent 29 years with LAPD and five years with Long Beach PD and last year I was the president of the LA County Police Chiefs Association and had the support of the 45 other police chiefs in the county. Being able to move forward with a team already in place, everyone sharing a common vision and wanting the Sheriff's Department to be successful, I think that’s a tremendous asset.

Are there any disadvantages to being an outsider and how will you overcome those?

I think the disadvantages are you don't have the institutional knowledge or know a lot of personnel in the organization. But by putting the right people who do have the institutional knowledge, the experience for many years, in the organization it'll create a balance, and I think a good one.

Your predecessor Sheriff Lee Baca left under a cloud of controversy. There were charges of corruption and violence in the jails, allegations by the DOJ that mentally ill were being housed in inhumane conditions. Some policies have been put in place to deal with this, but what do you think still needs to be done?

I think it’s a work in progress. The DOJ is looking closely at it. A lot has been done since the jail commission's report with 63 recommendations for change. Many of those have been implemented and others are in process. Moving forward, infrastructure is one issue. Mens Central Jail needs to be replaced. But also the philosophy within the jail environment. We also talked about a two-track system where deputies aren't sent from the academy directly into the jails for the next seven years, and then on the streets until they are promoted back in or get in trouble and go back into the jail. It was for too many years treated as a dumping ground for the organization, and it's one of the most high-liability areas of the department, and to treat it that way, if we were a business, we'd be in trouble.

What would you most like to see a new Mens Central Jail facility have?

I'd like to see a secure facility that is state of the art. It also provides for treatment of inmates who are mentally ill, but before we even deal with that issue be able to have some screening on the front end where we don't use incarceration as the first option for those who are mentally ill and have offended based on that illness. But have community-based mental health clinics and courts that would screen an individual and provide the appropriate treatment rather than just incarceration as the only option.