Called “Boxing for Sheriff: Business As Usual Vs. New Ideas,” the latest in a series of debates among the seven candidates vying to replace departed Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca broke out in a rash of finger-pointing, hot glances, and shaking heads appropriate to the event’s billing, though perhaps not its locale in St. Moriah Baptist Church on LA’s Southside.
With the Sheriff’s Department under U.S. Department of Justice scrutiny for everything from civil rights violations of mentally ill inmates, to racial profiling in the Antelope Valley, to jailhouse beatings by deputy gangs, much of the sometimes heated discussion this Monday focused on who among the candidates should be held responsible for those failings and then who would be best able to right the ship.
Regaining the Public’s Trust
“When we have to pay $100 million for lawsuits, we’ve lost the public trust. When 21 deputies are indicted— with more indictments coming—we’ve lost the public trust. When the sheriff steps down a year early, we’ve lost the public trust,” said Bob Olmstead, a retired Sheriff’s department commander who threw the sharpest verbal punches in this runup to the June 3rd primary. “I lay these problems at the feet of Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. When I was there, I ran these problems up the chain of command and nothing was done. I call it supervisory cowardice.”
The seven candidates break into insider and outsider camps, with outsiders tarring insiders with Baca’s tarnished reputation and insiders distancing themselves from their former boss. The outsiders argue that a fresh perspective is needed from the new sheriff, while the insiders say that only someone who knows the department well can fix it.
Jim Hellmold and Todd Rogers, whom Baca brought up to the command staff to address the issues besetting the department, are insiders, as is Paul Tanaka, who had been second in command as Baca’s undersheriff before their relationship soured and Tanaka retired last year. Outsiders include LA Police Department Detective Lou Vince, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, and retired LASD Lieutenant Patrick Gomez, who was not on the command staff.
Olmstead puts himself somewhere in the middle as a former high-ranking LASD commander, but one who retired before many of the current scandals became public knowledge. Hellmold, however, reminded the 100 or so mostly African Americans in the audience that Olmstead had been in charge of the jail system when many of the problems began.
Tanaka is the lightening rod in this fracas, both because he is a politically connected frontrunner—and three-term mayor of hometown Gardena—and because he, like Baca, was lambasted for poor leadership in a damning report from the blue ribbon Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.
Much is made in these debates of a tattoo Tanaka got three decades ago as a member of the Lynwood Vikings, a deputies’ club or clique. Monday, Olmstead jumped to his feet to wave photos of a youthful Tanaka posing with fellow officers throwing gang signs—drawing a clear line from those 30-year-old photos and the welter of serious allegations against gang activities by sheriff deputies, including white supremacist activity and extorting sexual favors from female deputies.
Tanaka insists that times have changed, that the deputy groups he belonged to in his twenties were more akin to company softball teams than anything heinous, and that, as far as youth indiscretions go, having snapshots taken pretending to throw gang signs with your buddies is pretty weak tea—ankle tattoo or no ankle tattoo.
Tanaka’s opponents are not so forgiving.
“You get what you encourage; you get what you tolerate,” said Jim McDonnell the Long Beach Police Chief who sat on the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence that investigated Baca and Tanaka. “That’s what we’ve seen with these deputy gangs, which have been tolerated in the past and, in some cases, encouraged.”
Jailing the Mentally Ill
Co-moderating the event with Rev. Samuel Casey, Patrisse Cullors—who has done ground-breaking work in organizing these debates across the county—brought the conversation back around to a topic that more of the candidates could agree upon: what, if anything can be done with the many hundreds of mentally ill inmates in the county’s jail?
Estimates say as many as 15 or 20% of the Los Angeles County’s jail system require mental health care. According the Los Angeles Times, they “cost more to house, often remain longer, and are more likely to wind up back in jail after being released than other inmates.”
“I’ve seen mentally ill inmates come through the jail 50, 60, 70 times for minor issues — stealing food to eat, and who can blame them for that?” said Olmstead, who once ran the jail system. “What we need is a mental health court that would handle these issues in a pre-booking process where people are assessed by mental health clinicians before we take them into jail.”
Others argue for better mental health facilities. Rogers would seek to match LASD mental health funds with money from the state to establish a mental health facility in the jail system. McDonnell would negotiate with the Board of Supervisors—which he says Baca was not able to do effectively—to build community health facilities outside the jail system.
Still others look for solutions to better deputy selection and training, or specialized staffing for the jails.
“We need to professionalize jail staff with mental health training,” said Lou Vince. “Not using high school graduate deputies who don’t want to be in the jail in the first place and aren’t adequately trained to deal with the mentally ill.”
Virtually all the candidates agree that putting the mentally ill or substance abusers in jail doesn’t deal with their core issues. But, as Tanaka says, “mental health is a societal problem that people just don’t want to deal with.”
Los Angeles has a decades-long tradition of dealing with its indigent mentally ill, not by providing community-based mental health facilities perhaps envisioned when Gov. Ronald Reagan finished emptying out the state’s mental hospitals in the early 1970s, but rather by letting them join the county’s unconscionable throng of homeless—which has topped 90,000 souls in recent memory—and then have law enforcement officers deal with them when they get out of hand.
By himself, no new sheriff will be able to make the Federal government or the State of California or the County Board of Supervisors or any other governing body provide effective community health services for the up to 4,000 mentally ill inmates currently sitting in the county jail system. Whoever replaces Baca and interim Sheriff John Scott can plead, can make a case, can negotiate—but, by itself, that won’t make anything happen.
As several of the candidates said in their individual ways, candidates can say most anything on the campaign trail, but it’s a different story when you’re actually in office. Will any of the candidates make the changes they suggest, or are they all just whistling past the graveyard? Your next chance to find out is the Santa Monica debate on April 24th.