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Crime & Justice

LA County Sheriff: Our relationship with ICE won't change for Trump

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announces the arrests of three people for trafficking a Los Angeles woman after fooling her into thinking she was going to a birthday party. McDonnell spoke at a news conference on March 9, 2016.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announces the arrests of three people for trafficking a Los Angeles woman after fooling her into thinking she was going to a birthday party. McDonnell spoke at a news conference on March 9, 2016.
Amanda Myers/AP

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Immigration has been a hot topic of discussion in Southern California following the election of Donald Trump as president, and many immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally are wondering what the future holds for them and their families. Here in Los Angeles County, Sheriff Jim McDonnell says his department's relationship with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will remain status quo.

“I don’t anticipate that," Sheriff McDonnell said in an interview with AirTalk's Larry Mantle.  "I think we have a good system here, as good as we can make it to be fair to everybody involved where our focus is public safety. We’re responsible for helping people in their time of need, investing crimes that have occurred regardless of the victim’s or offender’s immigration status, so we’ll keep doing things the way we have been."

Sheriff McDonnell also talked about the impact of ballot props like 64 (legal recreational pot), 66 (death penalty), and 57 (criminal justice reform), as well as Metro's proposal that law enforcement duties for L.A. County public transit be turned over to LAPD and Long Beach Police Department.

Interview highlights

On immigration

Larry Mantle: What kind of access will ICE agents have to inmates in L.A. County custody?

McDonnell: We have the Trust Act in California, which limits their ability to be able to go in and talk to anybody they want to in the custody environment. They’d have to be screened first and they would have to be somebody who’s in there for a violent or serious crime (burglary, grand theft auto, rape, murder, arson, etc.). No immigration violations count for having someone interviewed at the jails, if that’s all it is. We don’t focus on immigration or anybody’s immigration status. We focus on laws that violate the California Penal Code, primarily.

Where do you think sanctuary city position stands? Is it going to change or be challenged or expand?

I don’t think it’s clearly defined as to what constitutes a sanctuary city or county. There’s a lot of argument about which jurisdictions embrace that and which jurisdictions would argue the fact that they are one. Once we define that, we’ll be able to work with the new administration in a way where major urban areas across America aren’t being penalized for being a sanctuary city. At the end of the day, I think the new administration will look at the situation we’re facing and realize from a policing standpoint that we have to have relationships with everyone in our community. That’s the only way we keep crime down, that’s the only way we can protect the people that live in our jurisdiction. 

Supervisor Hilda Solis' has proposed more outreach to communities with significant numbers of immigrants living there illegally. What do you think of this?

That’s ongoing, we’ve been doing that for years. Our whole philosophy is that we’re here to protect the community. The community includes everybody in L.A., whether they’re a visitor or a resident, whether they’re a citizen of the U.S. or not. Our goal is to be able to have everyone feel comfortable calling the police for whatever their needs are.

On Metro's proposal that the LAPD and Long Beach Police Department take over majority of law enforcement responsibility for public transit

I had the opportunity to sit in both LAPD’s chair as well as Long Beach PD’s so I know some of the challenges that are faced with visibility on the lines, the ability to be able to respond quickly to calls for service on the lines. I think we’ve improved dramatically from where we were on those issues. However, at the end of the day, it is a massive system. There’s 2,200 buses, we have trains and buses that run throughout the county and beyond. When you look at the number of people that Metro has deployed from a public safety standpoint versus to the geography to be covered, the visibility is always going to be lacking. The fact is, as Metro spoke about in our last meeting with them, they’re looking to reduce their costs by about $80 million. I hope that doesn’t come at the expense of public safety for riders. My own personal feeling is that the way to best police the system would be for Metro to pay a stipend to every jurisdiction that has a police department within the County of Los Angeles so that they have investment that organization will see as part of their roles and responsibilities rapid deployment to 911 calls as well as proactive riding the buses and rails as it goes through their jurisdiction, with still one entity (which I’d like to see be the Sheriff’s Department because we have the regional reach) to be in charge of the whole operation. If you have three or more agencies in charge, no one’s in charge. Public safety by committee is probably not the best way to do business. 

Does this seem like a dumb deal? Are you holding out hope that Metro will renew with you?

I’m holding out hope that when the [Metro] board hears this on December 1st they will reevaluate the RFP that was put out and reassess where we are to see if there’s a better way to do this that provides what Metro is looking for – that increased visibility and to have the safest system we can – but also the fact that we have agencies that work together very well, but they have not been included as part of that public safety equation. It would not probably give them the savings they’re looking for, but it would enhance public safety in the system.

On the ballot propositions

You were opposed to Proposition 57, the ‘Son of Realignment’ and Prop 47. You said it would increase crime by giving earlier release to people with criminal histories. Can you quantify that, how much of an increase in crime do you think you’ll see with implementation of 57? 

Well, that remains to be seen because it’s not something where there will be a definitive mass release of inmates, but they’re going to be eligible at a much, much earlier stage.

Prop 57 will hurt us because it will allow people who were incarcerated for a base crime, say, of robbery, but they were also convicted of additional crimes as well as enhancements and potentially prior convictions. Now with 57, we can only look at the base crime. So if they were sentenced to 60 years in prison, the base crime for robbery might be six or seven years. Once they complete that six or seven years, they’re eligible for parole.

So we’re going to have people coming back to our communities much earlier than the courts and juries that sent them away intended. Parole boards can evaluate individual at time of release and hold that person longer, but that board is appointed by the governor. The governor has clearly shown that his agenda is to prevent people from coming into our state prison system under Prop 47, to release them early under Prop 57, and to shift the burden from the state to the local jails with AB 109. So the governor is looking out for the state prison system, he’s under a mandate from federal judges to reduce the population, and he’s doing it. The impact is going to be felt at the local level.

Proposition 62 would have abolished death penalty, but was voted down. Proposition 66, which passed, calls for effort to streamline process and get more appeals in timely manner. Your thoughts on the effects of those two measures?

Most people showed they feel there are certain crimes that are so horrific that we should maintain death penalty for those crimes. When you look at Prop 66 to reform and streamline the death penalty so people aren’t waiting 30 years before the sentence is carried out, there are artificial barriers where the inmate has to wait five years to be assigned an attorney, and only certain attorneys can be assigned to death penalty cases, and the inmates are treated more differently, more special if you will, than other inmates in custody. A lot of that under Prop 66 will be looked upon with a more rational eye, I think. Of all the people who are convicted of murder less than 2 percent of them are eligible for the death penalty, so it is reserved for the most horrific crimes, murders that basically shock the conscience.

On hate crimes

McDonnell: There has been a lot of rhetoric across the nation on hate crimes and the increase in hate crimes. Locally, we’ve seen a decrease.

Going from January 1st to September 30th of 2015, comparing that period to 2016, hate crimes decreased by just under 4 percent, from 153 to 147. Ethnicity and race-based hate crimes decreased by 4.5 percent. Religion based hate crimes decreased by 30 percent. Targeting black victims decreased by 29 percent. And hate crimes targeting Jewish victims decreased by 56 percent.

So what we’ve seen here in the L.A. County area has been good. We continue the ‘one crime is too many’ mentality, but we continue our investigative efforts into any incidents of hate or bigotry or bias. Post-election, we’re not hearing about more incidents. We’re hearing concerns about what potential there is for increased hate crimes, but we’re not seeing that borne out in numbers at this point.

On national sentiment towards law enforcement

Over the weekend, four police officers were shot in a single day. Your thoughts on this and the attitudes towards law enforcement we’re seeing so far this year?

When you look at the anti-law enforcement rhetoric we’ve heard over the past few years, it’s driven us to where we are. As a result of that rhetoric, we’ve seen an increase in assaults, murders, and ambush murders on police officers. We had San Antonio Police Detective Ben Marconi, he was the 60th officer shot to death this year compared to 41 in all of 2015, and the 20th to die in an ambush-style attack compared to eight last year. A third of police officers shot to death on the job this year were purposefully targeted by their assailant. It gives great pause to anyone doing this job and certainly their families as well.

How are you talking to your deputies about this issue?

I just did a video thanking them for the work they do and asking them for their increased vigilance to watch out for each other and to be as safe as possible. We give them the best tactical, firearms, and other training we can provide to keep them and the public as safe as we can. At the end of the day, the stark reality is that if someone is bent on injuring or killing a police officer, they’re out there and visible. The suspect knows who the cops are but the cops don’t know who the suspect is, so it’s a difficult situation — especially when you’re regularly answering routine calls for service like domestic violence, traffic stops, or even just sitting on the side of the road doing paperwork and there’s that concern that someone comes up and opens fire.

On the makeup of newly-appointed LASD civilian oversight committee

McDonnell: I’m very happy. It’s another filter, it’s another layer of accountability and transparency for our organization. I embrace it. I was in support of this since before the campaign even began from the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence. That was not something we directly recommended as we did with the Inspector General, but it’s something that I see that completes the mix. I don’t see it as threatening. I look at the individuals who were selected and I’m proud. I think they represent the county very well. We have people from all walks of life coming together with the common thread being that they want the Sheriff’s Department to be the very best it can be. 


Jim McDonnell, Sheriff, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; he tweets @LACoSheriff