On Wednesday, the LA Times endorsed Jim McDonnell for LA County Sheriff.. You’ll find the endorsement at the end of this post, so just scroll down if you can’t stand to wait.
DEPUTY CLIQUES AND CANDIDATE ABSENCES
About halfway through Monday night’s candidate’s debate featuring five of the seven men who hope to be elected Los Angeles County Sheriff on June 3 (or at least make it into the runoff) the discussion ramped up several notches in response to a question about what each man would do about the department’s notorious deputy cliques.
Jim Hellmold, Jim McDonnell, Bob Olmsted, Todd Rogers and Lou Vince were the five in attendance at the debate, which was organized by one of the LASD unions, the Professional Peace Officer’s Association or PPOA.
Pat Gomez did not attend the event for reasons that were not clear. But the most conspicuous absence was that of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka who said he had a scheduling conflict—although some PPOA members suggested that Tanaka might have simply chosen to skip this particular panel because he deduced that many of the event’s questions would not be friendly.
Indeed, what turned out to be the night’s most provocative question was the one about deputy cliques, which could arguably be seen as directed, at least in part, at the absent Tanaka.
It went as follows:
There has been a long history of accusations of deputy gangs and tattoo cliques within the Sheriff’s Department. The Lynwood Vikings were labeled by a judge to be a white supremacist gang that preyed on minorities, primarily blacks in the City of Lynwood, and more recently the 2000 and 3000 Boys at Men’s Central Jail were deputies accused of excessive force against inmates and even against each other. There are many other examples that have garnered negative attention in the media including the Jump Out Boys from the Sheriff’s elite gang unit, the Banditos from ELA station and the Regulators from Century station. What are your thoughts about these alleged deputy gangs and cliques? If elected Sheriff, will you put a stop to them? If so, how?
Retired LASD commander Bob Olmsted was up first. “They are not ‘alleged,‘” he said grimly. We’ve had them in the past and it’s intolerable.” With that, Olmsted held up a photo of a group of “3000 Boys,” one of the two deputy cliques that had reportedly caused problems at Men’s Central Jail. Each of the deputies in the photo was flashing a three-fingered sign.
As to whether the cliques deserved to be referred to as deputy “gangs,” Olmsted said. “When you have deputies that throw gang signs, call themselves ‘OGs,’ have [matching] tattoos, beat up other deputies…what would you call ‘em?”
If elected, Olmsted said he would deal with the cliques harshly, and that members could be fired.
“As sheriff I will not promote anybody who has a racist tattoo on his ankle,” he said. “To me that’s totally unacceptable.”
DIVISIONS IN THE RANKS
Todd Rogers (who, along with Hellmold, is one of two working assistant sheriffs in the race) also came down hard on deputy cliques. Like Olmsted, he said he did not view the groups as benign. “These cliques are divisive by their very nature,” he said, noting that some had suggested that the LASD’s clique tattoos were not any different than the military tattoos that men serving together often acquire.
“But if you’re in the military,” Rogers said, “anybody can get a tattoo, you don’t have to be sponsored, they don’t have numbers attached to ‘em.” [The tattoos of the Vikings, the Regulators and those of some of the other LASD cliques are sequentially numbered.] “They aren’t inclusive of one group, and exclusive of the rest of the deputies because they’re not ‘made’ people.’”
What Rogers thought was “really reprehensible,” he said, “is when our supervisors and our executives buy into that and perpetuate it by letting these people be promoted. We have a person commanding a station right now who has Viking tattoo, and a person running for sheriff who has a Viking tattoo on his ankle and refuses to renounce that.”
The candidate with the Viking tattoo is, of course, Paul Tanaka, who at other debates has admitted to the thing, which he acquired in the late 1980s. But he dismissed it as harmless and of no special importance.
LAPD detective Lou Vince, the next in line, was terse and to the point. “Deputy gangs and cliques are the opposite of what professional law enforcement should be,” he said.
When the question came to Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, he was crisp and unequivocal. “Looking at gangs…” he said. “We absolutely have them. The 2000 Boys, the 3000 Boys, the Regulators, the Jump Out Boys, the Bandidos, the Vikings…. That’s not professional law enforcement. It’s either high school, or it’s gangs. Or it’s somewhere in between.
The LASD is the only identity that any of us should have. We should be focused on how we raise the professionalism and the image of the organization. We have core values. But do we mirror them? By having cliques and gang behavior, if we tolerate them, we don’t.
“The whole idea of having to ‘earn your ink’ by being brutal to an inmate within the custody environment,” That’s criminal behavior,” McDonnell said.
“I look at the subculture that’s created by tolerating this behavior…and it’s unacceptable. It leads to poor morale, and deviant behavior. There’s one organization and that’s the LASD. If we’re professionals, let’s act like professionals, and hold ourselves and each other to the highest standard…”
IT’S THE CONDUCT, NOT THE TATTOO
Jim Hellmold, the other LASD assistant sheriff running, was the only one on the stage who did not portray the deputy cliques as harmful.
In fact, Hellmold dismissed the notion that special tattoos or cliques were important at all.
“I’m not going to tell you old wives tales about being offered a tattoo,” he said, in a slap at Rogers who, at some point in the discussion mentioned that, as a young deputy, he’d been asked to join the infamous Regulators by a more senior deputy and, when he declined, the would-be sponsor refused to have anything more to do with him.
“We’ve made our sheriff’s department look like a bunch of gangsters and thugs to the general public,” Hellmold said, seeming curiously to imply that the fault is in the portrayal of the cliques, not in the cliques themselves.
“To me it’s about the conduct,” said Hellmold. “And I have zero tolerance for misconduct.” He explained that he knew deputies who had been shot in the line of duty “who have a tattoo. And I’ve fired deputies who did not have a tattoo.” Hellmold did stipulate that if deputies had tattoos they should not be visible. (For the record, even the worst of the LASD deputy clique tattoos are generally worn on the ankle and like areas, that not visible in work clothing.)
Later in the discussion, Hellmold switched gears, turned to McDonnell, and began making rapidfire references to the LAPD’s bad old days in the late 1990′s when the Rampart division’s gang unit was revealed to be running amok and had its own ominous-looking tattoos.
The LAPD had a group called “Shootin’ Newton,” he said. “But that didn’t meant they were all killers.”
McDonnell, whose demeanor had mostly been genial toward his fellow candidates, began to look steely. “‘Shootin’ Newton’ is not a gang,” he said. “It’s a station nickname, and it’s not professional.
Well, had McDonnell ever worn a Shootin’ Newton t-shirt?
Another laser stare look. “No. I didn’t and I never would have.”
There were more questions about what McDonnell had personally done to get rid of the LAPDs tattoo-wearing Rampart clique.
In fact, the LAPD went so far as to disband all the department’s gang units, which were known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums.) And, likely, more relevantly, McDonnell had been second in command under Bill Bratton when Bratton was rebooting the LAPD in order to rid it of its corrosive culture, which included the arrogant, dice-shaving, non-Constitutional policing that the Rampart CRASH elements represented.
At still another point the conversation, Rogers signaled to the moderator that he wanted to reply to Hellmold as well. He had not been talking about old wives tales, he said. “I’m talking about deputies who were ostracized when they go to the command post by the shot callers at those stations.
Olmsted broke in again and held up a photo of the Jump Out Boys tattoo which features a skull and the so-called dead man’s hand, Aces and eights, which is similar to the Rampart CRASH tattoo.). “That’s the corporate culture that we’re talking about. And it’s not acceptable,” he said. “When the public sees us with these kind of tattoos it’s unacceptable.”
And so it went. There were other lively moments in the night. But it was this segment that provided the best theater and possibly some of the best insight.
AND NOW FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES ENDORSEMENT
The LA Times editorial board has endorsed Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell for Los Angeles County Sheriff. But the board’s endorsement is not just an explanation of why the board members believe that McDonnell is the right man for the moment, it is also a commentary on the state of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and how the latter necessitates the selection of the former.
Here are two clips from the heart of the endorsement essay. But be sure to read the whole thing. It is too important to merely skim.
The pivotal question before voters is whether they believe the department is emerging from a chaotic but limited period in which professional standards broke down, and that with Sheriff Lee Baca’s departure and the continuing implementation of reforms urged by a citizens commission, it is now well on its way to recovery; or if instead it is continuing on a decades-long path that promotes cliques, secrecy and abuse, and needs a sweeping and dramatic change in culture.
If it’s the former situation, as some of the candidates argue, all that is needed is the right candidate from the right departmental faction to complete a sweep of troublemakers and commit to better management of the jails, and all will be well.
But if the department’s problems are not that recent or simple — and the evidence is overwhelming that they are not — what is needed is a candidate with the law enforcement credentials, the integrity, the backbone and the skills to march the deputies, their leaders and their culture through a rigorous and soul-searching reinvention, all while raising performance standards and recommitting the department to transparency and humane and constitutional treatment of suspects, inmates and the public at large.
That latter standard is the bar a candidate should meet. The one who comes closest is Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell. The Times strongly recommends a vote for McDonnell for sheriff.
Is McDonnell as good as his reputation? Does he have the will, as well as the command presence, to confront and prevail over what is sure to be resistance from entrenched elements in the Sheriff’s Department?
The Times’ editorial page is convinced. His tenure as Long Beach police chief has been short but impressive. Before that, he was a highly regarded second in command to the Los Angeles police chief, and although he was not the most publicly visible or vocal leader of the Los Angeles Police Department during the era of Rampart reforms, his leadership during that time was unmistakable to those who closely follow the LAPD. His quick mind and thoughtful analysis were apparent as he sat on the county’s Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence that cut to the heart of problems in the Sheriff’s Department and recommended decisive corrective action.
Credit retired Cmdr. Robert Olmsted for his role in calling out abuse in the jails, but he is not the leader the department needs. Todd Rogers, especially, deserves notice for his commitment to community policing, and the integrity and professionalism he brings are badly needed in the department. But like other candidates, he need not hold the top spot to be part of the solution.
A note about candidate and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka: His name comes up in virtually every report or interview about command breakdown and jail violence in the last five years of Baca’s tenure. His attempts to explain some of his stunning directives — for example, his admonition to deputies to work in the “gray area” of the law and his later explanation that he meant they should use their discretion — are laughable. He is exactly the wrong person to lead the Sheriff’s Department forward.
The right person is Jim McDonnell…
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tomorrow we’ll catch up on the non-LASD news.