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LA sheriff’s race: In debate, candidates urge a delay in jail expansion plan

LA sheriff candidates, from left: James Hellmold, Jim McDonnell, Bob Olmsted, Paul Tanaka, Todd Rogers and Lou Vince at the Westside Jewish Community Center Sunday night.
LA sheriff candidates, from left: James Hellmold, Jim McDonnell, Bob Olmsted, Paul Tanaka, Todd Rogers and Lou Vince at the Westside Jewish Community Center Sunday night.
Frank Stoltze

Six of the seven candidates for Los Angeles County sheriff believe the Board of Supervisors should postpone any action on a proposed $2.3 billion jail expansion plan until after this year's election is settled.

“I think the new sheriff needs to be consulted on what we’re going to do with our jail system,” said current assistant sheriff Todd Rogers during a candidates' debate Sunday at the Westside Jewish Community Center. The primary election is June 3. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two face each other in November.

“I think we have plenty of jail beds,” Rogers added.

“We need to take a step back,” said another candidate, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell. “A new sheriff is a major stakeholder in this.”

RELATED: Read more about the sheriff's candidates

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the expansion plan Tuesday.

McDonnell also pointed out that the U.S. Department of Justice is considering suing L.A. County over its handling of mentally ill inmates, which could lead to new federally required reforms under a consent decree. “Part of that consent decree may be mandates as to what our jails look like,” McDonnell said.

“It’s going to be catastrophic if the board decides about a new jail without the input of the new sheriff,” added candidate and retired Sheriff's Department Commander Bob Olmsted.

“We need to divert the mentally ill from the jail,” Olmsted said. That would reduce the inmate population and give the county a better idea of what it needs to build for mentally prisoners, he said.

The other three candidates — Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, and LAPD Detective Lou Vince — agreed. Former Sheriff’s Lt. Patrick Gomez did not attend the event.

All of the candidates said the aging Men’s Central Jail needs to be replaced. But Rogers added officials should not blame the facility for the abuse that went on inside it.

“That was because of a catastrophic failure of leadership,” Rogers said.

The debate also featured a tense exchange between two of the candidates over who was to blame for inmate abuse. Olmsted said Tanaka was responsible for protecting deputies who engage in misconduct.

Olmsted vs. Tanaka

“What we don’t want are undersheriffs like Mr. Tanaka cutting the feet out from underneath the captains,” Olmsted said, repeating allegations he’s made in the past. “He is the problem.”

Olmsted and Tanaka stood next to each other just inches apart on the stage. Tensions grew as the debate went on. On three occasions Olmsted hammered Tanaka, who finally fired back.

“I continually get attacked by a person who is doing nothing more than lying,” Tanaka said. “The fact of the matter is Bob Olmsted was the captain of the jail when it was in trouble.”

Its true that Olmsted was in charge of Men’s Central Jail, but not during its worst years. Olmsted said Tanaka blocked him from fixing jail problems – a perception shared by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

Tanaka has called the panel’s report a “hit job.”

Clearly fed up with the criticism, the former undersheriff also accused the moderator, KCRW radio journalist Warren Olney, of failing to stop what he considered to be personal attacks.

“You haven’t done anything about it,” Tanaka said. “This is a dog pile on me every time we go to these debates.”

Last week, the Los Angeles Times endorsed McDonnell for the office.