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Outgoing LA Sheriff Warns Against Backsliding On Reforms

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell at his final news conference on Tuesday. (Photo by Frank Stoltze/LAist)
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Outgoing L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell expressed concern Tuesday that his successor will "backslide" on reforms that were achieved during his tenure, and refused to rule out running for sheriff in the future.

In his first public remarks since conceding the election on Monday, McDonnell told a news conference he was "disappointed" that he lost, but added he "couldn't be more proud" of what he'd accomplished over his four-year term.

McDonnell hands over power next Monday, when Sheriff-elect Alex Villanueva is sworn in.

McDonnell claimed a long list of achievements, including unifying a "fractured" department that was in crisis after the jail violence scandal that ensnared former Sheriff Lee Baca, his undersheriff and more than 20 other sheriff's officials.

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In a subsequent interview with KPCC, McDonnell said, "we took an organization that was on the rocks, righted the ship, and are going in the right direction, and going at a pretty good clip as well."

The sheriff claimed that during his four years heading the department, "we've been able to achieve the kind of change that takes generally 10 years to achieve."

The sheriff-elect has said McDonnell was never a reformer, and has promised to purge a lot of the command staff as part of an effort to eliminate corruption at the top. Villanueva also has close ties to the sheriff's deputies union, which fought McDonnell on his efforts to increase transparency and hold deputies more accountable for misconduct.

The sheriff expressed concern that his successor will undo changes he's implemented. "My hope is that we continue to move forward in the direction that we've been going," McDonnell said, "and that we don't backslide on any of the reforms, any of the progress that we've made."

Asked on KPCC about Villanueva's vow to eliminate the department's two constitutional policing advisors, McDonnell said, "I hope that he takes a deep breath, takes a step back and gives it some time to be able see the value to the organization and to him that that team plays."

The advisors, whose positions McDonnell created, are a valuable "barometer" helping him deal with use of force, deputy discipline and other delicate issues, he said.

"If you don't have anybody looking at those issues, you're not even going to know there's a problem until it becomes a crisis or a scandal," the sheriff added.

McDonnell also urged Villanueva to "take a deep breath again" before carrying out his promise to remove the majority of the command staff, saying it would be "irresponsible" to deal with such weighty personnel issues "in a cavalier manner."

"My hope is that he'll realize that the people in those positions are there for a reason," the sheriff said, adding that the department's leaders have decades of experience and "have developed a level of expertise that would be the envy of any organization in the country."

McDonnell suggested that once Villanueva is officially responsible "for the outcomes, for the risk management, for the lawsuits and civil actions against the department, for complying with the consent decree that's ongoing, and being judged based on what happened before ... I think that will temper maybe what he intended to do, and what he promised to do in some cases."

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After telling LAist on Nov. 16 that he planned to remove "the overwhelming majority" of the department's top leaders, Villanueva added, "we'll decide everything on a case-by-case basis. We're not going to just say this is exactly who's going to be coming or going, we have to evaluate everybody."

Noting at Tuesday's news conference that Villanueva "made promises during the election to a lot of different, diverse constituencies," McDonnell cautioned his successor that "being sheriff is very different than running for sheriff."

Referring to Villanueva, the sheriff said, "I will be a vocal supporter, and when necessary, a vocal critic as well."

When asked whether he would consider running for sheriff again, McDonnell said, "I certainly don't feel ... that my work life is over. I feel I have a lot to offer, and I'll keep my options open on that."

Among the accomplishments he mentioned, the sheriff said he's installed systems "resulting in a sea change within our jail environment." Incidents involving serious use of force against inmates "were commonplace in the past," he said. "Those are now almost non-existent."

McDonnell said deputy shootings dropped sharply during his tenure, from 44 in 2013 to 21 in 2017.

The sheriff angered the deputies union by taking steps to make it easier to fire deputies for misconduct, and for trying to give the district attorney a list of 300 names of deputies whose credibility could be called into question in court because of past dishonesty.

The union, the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, sued to stop McDonnell from turning over the list, a move Villanueva supported. The case is now before the California Supreme Court.

McDonnell said he's made progress dealing with a deputy shortage, which the department says stands at about 500 positions but the union pegs at closer to 1,500. Applications for deputy positions are up 8 percent over last year, he said.

The union, which endorsed Villanueva and spent more than $1.3 million to help elect him, says the sheriff did not do nearly enough to hire more deputies. The ongoing shortage has led to significant amounts of mandatory overtime, which the union says has hurt morale.

Union President Ron Hernandez said his organization joined a task force McDonnell formed to tackle the shortage. "We were on that task force for about a year and I saw absolutely no changes," he said. "We haven't gained any bodies."

While the union said most of the rank-and-file wanted McDonnell out, the sheriff pushed back on that idea Tuesday.

The rank and file "by and large are very happy with the direction we've been going," he told KPCC.

"I think if you were to talk to the rank and file ... you would get a very different answer" than what's coming from union leadership, "which has been resistant to the reforms that we were trying to implement," said McDonnell.

"Change is difficult, change is painful," he said, adding, "reform is change."

McDonnell pointed to an increase in the number of mental health teams he's put in the field. He also cited the county's decision to move forward with plans to build a new jail in downtown L.A. designed to better treat inmates with mental health problems.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Black Lives Matter endorsed Alex Villanueva. LAist regrets the error.

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