Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

LA sheriff’s race: Can outsider Jim McDonnell overcome tradition?

Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell says it's time for an outsider like him to run the troubled L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell says it's time for an outsider like him to run the troubled L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Sitting in the lobby of the Long Beach Hilton with Jim McDonnell, one of the first things you notice is his accent.

“My parents came over from Ireland the year before I was born,” he explains. “We grew up down the street from Fenway Park in Boston. My dad was a laborer.”

McDonnell smiles. He acknowledges the cliché of an Irishman wanting to become a cop. But the Boston Police Department wasn’t hiring, so after college the young man came West to work at the LAPD.

McDonnell, 54, has established himself as a well-known leader in the Southern California policing community. He spent 30 years at the LAPD, rising to assistant chief, before taking the top job in Long Beach four years ago. He has served as president of the L.A. County Police Chiefs Association.

Now, he wants to succeed L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca. McDonnell says he would bring a fresh perspective to a Sheriff’s Department with problems ranging from a federal investigation into excessive use of force at the jails to hiring unqualified deputies.

“I bring the outside set of eyes coming into an organization without predispositions,” McDonnell says. “Without alliances within the organization.”

All of the other candidates seeking to become the county's top cop are either current or former sheriff’s officials, except for an LAPD sergeant. If elected, McDonnell would be the first sheriff to come from outside the department in at least 100 years.

Key law enforcement leaders back him for just that reason.

“Sometimes, as was the case with the LAPD, it's necessary to look outside an organization for leadership,” says former federal judge Robert Bonner, who once led the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck also have endorsed McDonnell.  He’s also won the unanimous support of his former colleagues on the blue-ribbon Jail Violence Commission

“What impressed me about Chief McDonnell was his level headedness,” says Alex Busansky, who sat on the panel and heads the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “He is willing to look at where information [and] the data take him.”

That’s important because Sheriff Baca came under fire for failing to respond to years of data that showed increasing use of force by his deputies inside the jails.

McDonnell may have been born in Boston, but don’t expect the bombast of the last New Englander to head a law enforcement agency in Southern California — onetime LAPD Chief Bill Bratton. Former federal judge Lourdes Baird chaired the jail violence panel, and sat next to McDonnell during meetings.

“He is soft-spoken,” Baird says. “He is not pushy. He is collaborative.”

McDonnell is not a meandering philosopher like Baca either. He is easy and likable, says Jerlene Tatum of the African American Convening Committee in Long Beach. She recalls a community meeting where her baby was crying loudly.

“He stopped what he was doing, and he got down on his knees, and he talked to my child,” Taum says. “He comforted my children until they stopped crying.”

McDonnell may not like the idea of campaigning for political office, but that kind of compassionate display could play well with voters.

But he’s also come under fire in Long Beach for an increase in police shootings. Yvette Mullens’ 19-year-old stepson fled officers after a car stop and was shot after a long foot chase. He was unarmed. She’s angry McDonnell defended the officers who fatally shot him.

“He’s helping cover up the situation,” says Mullens. “He’s helping justify his officers' behavior."

McDonnell says the teen was reaching for his waistband when officers fired. He notes crime is down dramatically in Long Beach — even amid budget cuts.

At the LAPD, McDonnell won praise for his support of community policing and reforms that made cops more accountable. He also came under criticism as a manager who had a hard time lowering the hammer on underachievers, and as the guy who couldn’t get big projects done. What does he think of the criticisms?

“They are interesting. I probably wouldn’t disagree with them,” McDonnell says. “My goal is to balance the art and science of policing in a way where you get things done using the skill sets of other people.”

He says he knows how to put the right team together.

LAPD Chief Beck spent decades working with McDonnell at the department. Asked about McDonnell's management style, Beck says don't expect a tough guy who’ll force changes at a broken Sheriff’s Department. Instead, he says McDonnell would “charm the troops.”

“Of all the people that I know that can come in from the outside, he is one that can get the willing cooperation of the deputies,” Beck says.

That’s no easy task. Just figuring out the politics of the sprawling and often byzantine Sheriff’s Department, with its rival internal factions, could be daunting.

For example, the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs has said the problems at the department have been overblown. And while many executives in law enforcement are lining up behind McDonnell, the powerful deputies union remains silent on him — and all of the other candidates.

(The other candidates include two Assistant Sheriffs, James Hellmold and Todd Rogers; former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka; former Sheriffs Commander Bob Olmsted; former Sheriff's Lt. Pat Gomez; and LAPD Sgt. Lou Vince.)

McDonnell almost downplays what would be an enormous undertaking at a Sheriff’s Department with 18,000 employees who police the entire county.

“Its not rocket science,” he says. “It’s doing basic management, basic supervision, and some strong leadership — setting the tone and being very clear about what you’ll tolerate and what you won’t.”

The primary election is in June.