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

James Hellmold: An insider seeks the sheriff post

L.A. County Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold says
L.A. County Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold says "there are a lot of people who cringe at the prospect of me being Sheriff. And they should, because I will not tolerate any of the political manipulation."
Frank Stoltze
L.A. County Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold says
Assistant Sheriffs James Hellmold, left, and Todd Rogers are both candidates to succeed former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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A few years ago, when James Hellmold commanded L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies in the gang-riddled Lynwood area, he drew the ire of some colleagues.

“They had a legitimate question,” Hellmold recalled. “Why [was I] speaking at a gang member’s funeral?”

Hellmold attended the services for 25-year-old Branden Bullard, who’d been shot by rival gang members, to focus, he said, not on the “the negativity” in the young man’s life, but on the good things.

“In more recent days he had mentored some kids who were athletes, and trying to stay away from gangs.”

When the questions persisted from deputies, Hellmold challenged them.

“I asked them what they’ve done to help somebody else.”

RELATED: L.A. Sheriff's race: A look at the candidates

Hellmold, 46, now one of four assistant sheriffs in the sprawling L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, seems just as interested in lending a hand to the needy as handcuffing criminals. Asked for a war story from the streets, he doesn’t talk about the time he shot an armed bank robber. He tells of taking foster kids to UCLA football games. That attitude has won him deep support in African-American communities.

On the front lawn of First AME Church, L.A.’s preeminent black congregation, Senior Pastor Ed Boyd introduced Hellmold when he announced his campaign in late January.

“He’s not a politician," Boyd remarked. "He’s a servant."

Later, Cynthia Mendenhall, a leader at the Imperial Courts Housing Project in Watts, said Hellmold provided comfort when her son fatally shot himself during a confrontation with deputies.

“He came to see about me, see what my family needed for the funeral,” she said.

Hellmold joined the Sheriff’s Department in 1988, following in the footsteps of his father, a sergeant who spent 32 years on the force. His father helped quell the 1965 Watts riots. Hellmold has patrolled those same streets around Southeastern L.A. County.

Hellmold said his father never had an "us-versus-them mentality. It was a relationship with the community.”

His father is obviously an inspiration for Hellmold, as is his faith.

“If you asked any of my friends if I’m a Bible thumper, they might laugh at me,” Hellmold said. “I’m just saying where I get my spiritual guidance from is Jesus.”

On the streets, Hellmold was an aggressive patrolman, recalled Sheriff’s Chief Eric Parra, who supervised him in his early years with the department and has endorsed his candidacy. Hellmold often arrived at crime scenes first, and was always busy making traffic stops, Parra said.

“He was one big ball of energy," Parra said. "He still is."

More recently, Parra and Hellmold served on a task force that sought to reduce use of force inside the jails. During meetings to discuss proposed changes, deputies derided plans for mandatory six-month rotations at Men’s Central Jail. Hellmold handled the angry complaints diplomatically, and asked deputies to “see a middle ground,” Parra said.

“Jim wouldn’t snap back,” he said. “Ultimately, they reached consensus.”

“I went to every shift at the jails and laid out the needs for reform,” Hellmold said.

Hellmold did survive one event that threatened his reputatton. In 2005, he was a lieutenant in command during one of the most notorious incidents in Sheriff’s Department history. Deputies fired 120 shots at an unarmed man following a high-speed pursuit in Compton. Bullets flew everywhere, hitting some homes. A deputy was wounded by friendly fire. Just four shots hit the suspect. Incredibly, he survived.

An independent report cleared Hellmold of misconduct – he was several blocks away at a command post. But he’s heard the recent talk that he bore responsibility.

“That’s campaign trickery,” the first time candidate declared.

Hellmold calls himself a “crime-fighter, not a politician,” and said he’s already helping to reform a troubled sheriff’s department. Importantly, he embraces more civilian oversight.

The department is under multiple FBI investigations relating to allegations of excessive use of force and civil rights violations. A federal grand jury has indicted 20 current and former sheriff’s officials. Hellmold promises to hold people more accountable than former Sheriff Lee Baca, but he also bristles at the barrage of criticism of the department.

“There have been some mistakes made, and there are some more reforms that need to occur,” Hellmold said. “But it is not true that there’s systemic misconduct happening.”

Hellmold once served as a personal assistant and driver for Baca. He owes his rise in the department in part to the retired sheriff and to another candidate, former undersheriff Paul Tanaka.  They groomed and promoted him. Baca and Tanaka also faced scathing criticism in a blue ribbon report for failing to stop abuses in the jails. But Hellmold remains reluctant to criticize them publicly.

“It's very trendy right now to jump on the bandwagon of talking negative of Undersheriff Tanaka,” Hellmold said. “But we can’t deny some of the good things that he’s done for the department.”

Author Joe Domanick, who has written extensively on law enforcement in Los Angeles, wonders how much an insider like Hellmold can reform the agency.

“If he ‘s risen that high in the department, it’s a rare bird indeed who hasn’t been part of the problem,” said Domanick, adding that Hellmold likely wouldn’t have the big picture view of the department a candidate from outside the agency would bring.

“He’s part of that culture," Domanick noted. "He’s trained to think, and act within the culture of that department."

Hellmold said he is prepared to steer the department in a new direction – and some of his colleagues know it.

“Some people within the organization would fear me becoming the sheriff because you will have accountability within this organization,” he said.

He’s won support from one of the region’s most prominent police reformers. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice said Hellmold used to embrace ex-gang members who were working to keep kids out of gangs when other cops were arresting them.

“He was the only sheriff’s deputy who would stand in the gap,” Rice said. “He was the only sheriff’s deputy who said…'I’m going to make sure they can do what they need to do to keep the little ones safe.'”

Six other candidates are running for sheriff. In addition to Tanaka they include Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers, former Sheriff’s Commander Bob Olmsted, former Sheriff’s Lt. Patrick Gomez, and LAPD Sgt. Lou Vince.

The primary election is on June 3.