by Alisa Roberts
Those who think local politics are boring probably missed this week’s LA County Sheriff Candidate’s Debate. The event was sponsored by the Shomrim Society of Southern California and CivicCare, along with the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and other co-sponsors.
The election comes in the wake of Sheriff Lee Baca’s resignation following corruption and abuse allegations, most notably rampant prison brutality. Tension ran high on stage as six of the seven candidates stood shoulder to shoulder. KCRW radio journalist Warren Olney moderated the debate between candidates James J. Hellmold, Jim McDonnell, Bob Olmstead, Todd Rogers, Paul Tanaka, and Lou Vince. Candidate Patrick Gomez was not present.
The event began with a moment of silence for the third fallen LAPD officer in as many months. Then Mr. Olney took the stage, set the rules for the debate, and let the candidates introduce themselves.
Hellmold, a 25-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department who currently commands all of the Department’s Patrol and Detective Divisions, appeared calm and at ease. He emphasized the decrease in crime under his command, and the policies which had accomplished this drop. He mentioned the recent scandals in a glancing way but did not make them his focus.
McDonnell, Chief of Police for the city of Long Beach and former LAPD second in command, spoke with easy confidence in his Boston accent. He brought the scandal more to the fore, talking about the importance of the Sheriff’s Department but also about the appalling nature of what the Jail Commission found. He concluded with his hopes to create a new vision for the organization.
Olmsted, a 32-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department and former Commander, looked most like the classic version of an old-time sheriff with his grey hair and mustache. He showed immediately that he was not pulling any punches, saying that he had resigned three years prior out of disgust at the abuses in the jails and subsequently becoming the whistleblower that brought the situation to the attention of the FBI. With Tanaka standing mere inches from him on the stage, he boldly claimed he had brought these allegations to Tanaka, and that Tanaka had done nothing about the claims.
Tanaka, Undersheriff from 2011 until his 2013 retirement and current Mayor of Gardena, was the only candidate who stood throughout the event. He emphasized his long and varied 33-year service as well as his accounting experience and explained how he had successfully applied both skill sets to balancing the Sheriff’s Department budget and that of the city of Gardena. He made no mention of Baca, the scandals, or Olmsted’s comments.
Rogers, Assistant Sheriff and Mayor of the city of Lakewood, peppered his comments with easy smiles and corny jokes. But he didn’t shy from the issues, explaining that he had been the one Baca had asked to restore integrity to the Department a year before. He spoke about transparency and community policing; his vision for a new kind of organization.
Vince, a Senior Detective Supervisor and 20-year veteran of the LAPD, wore his passion on his sleeve. He began by stating that he was the first one in the race against Baca in 2013. He pointed out that there have only been four sheriffs in the past eight decades, going on to express his desire to bring the organization into the 21st century.
Olney moderated with grace, keeping the conversation fluid and controlling the candidates as well as could be hoped, but he could not control the bitter accusations that bounced from Olmsted to Tanaka. The anger built as the debate progressed. Tanaka blamed the accusations leveled against him as political maneuvering. He refused to address specific accusations and denied any bad behavior or knowledge of misconduct on his part. Olmsted did not pass up an opportunity to badger him, answering one question with, “No, he is not being scapegoated; he is the problem with the organization.”
Eventually, Tanaka ran out of patience and asked for an opportunity to respond to “a person who is doing nothing more than lying.” When Olney suggested the tone needed to be less personal, Tanaka angrily threw back, “Well you’ve been letting him get personal all night on me, sir.” At this point the audience loudly exploded into cheers and boos.
Hellmold and Rogers both openly acknowledged ties to Bacca without becoming embroiled in the argument. “I did a lot of soul searching, but I did not sell my soul,” said Rogers. Hellmold took a balanced approach, saying “There were many fine things that Mr. Baca did,” but concluded, “We have not gotten any real political support from him.”
The core issue may have been expressed by Tanaka when he said, “There’s nothing more important than the relationship that a law enforcement agency has with the public. Once the public loses trust…it doesn’t work.”
This election may come down to which candidate – if any – the voters are willing to trust.