Six of the seven candidates running for Los Angeles County Sheriff presented themselves as reform candidates at a forum held Sunday at a church in Pasadena.
For the most part, former Sheriff’s Lt. Patrick Gomez, Assistant Sheriff Jim Hellmold, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and LAPD Detective Lou Vince agreed on such things as limiting federal immigration enforcement in local jails, reducing the use of force by deputies, inviting civilian oversight of the department, doing a better job at background checks on newly hired deputies and applying common sense approaches to the department’s late-night detainee release policy.
But agreements did not stop three of the six from taking jabs at Tanaka for the central role he played in the corruption scandal that has resulted in a federal investigation, the retirement of Sheriff Lee Baca and Tanaka’s own resignation as undersheriff.
When all the candidates were asked how they would assess the performance of their predecessor, most had nothing but praise for Baca, but the general consensus was “[Baca] trusted the wrong people,” said Hellmold, who served as Baca’s personal driver and was commander in charge of inspecting jail operations following a special committee’s findings that the jails were a virtual breeding ground for corruption and other bad behavior by deputies.
“With all due respect, there’s someone running for sheriff who was in command of the very jail facility that this alleged misconduct and excessive force occurred,” Hellmold said of Tanaka. “It’s one thing to call yourself a whistleblower after the fact,” as Tanaka has described himself, “but, meanwhile, you had three years of alleged misconduct.”
An estimated 200 people attended the event, which was presented by Neighborhood Unitarian-Universalist Church and All Saints Church. The forum at Neighborhood Church was sponsored by the ACLU-SoCal and Pasadena/Foothills chapters, the political action group ACT, All of Us or None, the Armenian Community Coalition, Common Cause, Dignity and Power Now, Justice Not Jails, the LA Progressive, the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, the NAACP Pasadena Branch, the Pasadena Latino Coalition and the Pasadena United Democratic Headquarters.
The forum was moderated by Pasadena Weekly Editor Kevin Uhrich and Deputy Editor André Coleman.
Despite his shots at Tanaka, Hellmold found himself on the hot seat after claiming there were no gangs in the department.
“I do not believe that our deputies are gang members. I will demand that the next sheriff will not call out deputies that are on the front lines risking their lives for the community by calling them gang members,” Hellmold stated.
Taken aback by Hellmold’s assertion, Coleman asked the candidate to clarify. “Did you make the statement that there are no gangs in the Sheriff’s Department?” Coleman asked.
“That is correct,” said Hellmold. “I do not believe that our deputies are gang members.”
Coleman asked the other candidates if this was an opinion that they shared, which touched off a long discussion about gang-like behavior exhibited by some deputies. All of the other candidates acknowledged that this type of behavior has existed and continues to exist within the department.
“You can call it gangs. You can call it cliques, whatever you want. Anytime that you have people operating in concert with one another in a manner that is contrary to society’s expectations of its law enforcement officers, it should be dealt with swiftly and harshly,” said Tanaka.
Rogers pointed out that deputies who are part of these cliques get tattoos, which are numbered and require sponsorship. These emblems must be earned through unprofessional behavior, he said. Not everyone can get them, which Rogers said is a very divisive practice within the organization.
“We have these cliques, and anyone who denies it is living in a fantasyland,” Rogers said.
Two of the candidates — Rogers and Gomez — mentioned that they’d be willing to lift their pant legs and show that they did not have a gang tattoo. Tanaka admitted that he has a tattoo, which represented his membership in the Lynwood Vikings, a notorious sheriff’s gang. In 1996, a federal judge deemed the Vikings a neo-Nazi white supremacist gang. Tanaka is Asian American. According to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles County paid $9 million in fines and training costs to settle lawsuits regarding what was termed “racially-motivated hostile activity” by the Vikings. Tanaka said the Viking was a mascot of the station beginning in the 1980s.
“Yes, I do have a tattoo,” said Tanaka, who is also mayor of Gardena. “No, I never was ever part of a gang. It did not become sinister until years later, and if I had known then what I know now, I would have gotten a different tattoo.”
The six candidates — and former Cmdr. Bob Olmsted, who had a scheduling conflict and could not attend — are running to replace Baca, who in February resigned amid one of the worst scandals in the department’s history. Since January, 20 deputies have been indicted by a federal grand jury on a number of allegations, among them police brutality in the county’s jails and a conspiracy to prevent an FBI informant from testifying in front of the grand jury. The scandal also forced Tanaka out of the department.
On Sunday, the six candidates praised Baca for his education programs and work with the homeless and mentally ill.
Three of the candidates — Hellmold, Rogers and Tanaka — were major figures in the department during the corruption scandal. The three men were members of the sheriff’s command staff, with Hellmold and Rogers serving as assistant sheriffs. Tanaka was the undersheriff, or the No. 2 man in the department.
“My focus was on my command, which was a patrol station in South Los Angeles,” said Hellmold. “When the allegations of misconduct and excessive force occurred in the jails, I was brought in after the fact as a commander to implement the reforms, working with the jails commission, which has been very successful.”
The Los Angeles County Citizens’ Committee on Jail Violence was formed in 2011 to investigate longstanding claims that deputies in county jails routinely beat inmates and committed other crimes while on duty. The panel, which included McDonnell, heavily criticized Baca and Tanaka for what it called a failure of leadership. The panel made 60 recommendations for improvement and accountability, including the hiring of an inspector general to keep watch over the department. McDonnell has said all of his fellow jail violence board members — chaired by former federal Judge Lourdes G. Baird and including fellow retired US District judges Robert C. Bonner of Pasadena, Dickran Tevrizian, also a local resident, and Carlos Moreno, who served as a US District judge before becoming a state Supreme Court associate justice — have endorsed his candidacy.
“I’ve been an outsider of this organization for 15 years,” said Rogers, who also serves as mayor of Lakewood. “I never took a coin. I never smoked the cigars. I never did any of that BS stuff.”
When asked why he didn’t come forward about his concerns with Baca’s leadership until now, Tanaka said Baca committed no crimes. “Unless your boss is committing a crime, which I would have no hesitation in reporting,” there was nothing to report, said Tanaka. “Short of that, our differences were largely and wholly philosophical as it related to the management and leadership in the department. We had our differences. I did my best to challenge the sheriff when I thought he lost focus, when I thought he was not engaged, when I thought he was compromising the hiring and promotion practices, and I made my voice as clear as I possibly could.”
Afterwards, a number of people told the Weekly that the presentation will influence their vote on June 3.
“I went expecting to support Olmstead, who didn’t bother to show up,” Lamb told the Weekly. “I had ruled out Rogers, as he was still employed at the LASD, but his work reforming the department since the interim sheriff [former Orange County Undersheriff John Scott] took over and his career-long stance against corruption has won me over. I will either vote for him or Gomez, who was retaliated against by Sheriff Baca for his strong reformist stands.”
Alex Keledjian, a former candidate for the Pasadena City College Board of Trustees, said the forum helped him decide who he was going to vote for.
“I definitely left the forum more informed,” Keledjian said. “Based on his experience and plan for the LASD, I plan on voting for Jim McDonnell.”
“I think the most important learning that came from the candidate debate was hearing the candidates support civilian oversight of their departments and that they acknowledge that transparency is key to public trust and confidence,” said All Saints Church’s Creative Connections Director Juliana Serrano.
The candidates agreed on the need for civilian oversight of the department, but said the usefulness of the Office of Independent Review (OIR) — an idea developed by Baca in which lawyers assessed the performances of the Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies on major cases and incidents involving officer-involved shootings — has run its course
Last month, Pasadena Police Chief Philip Sanchez announced that shootings involving officers of his department will now be investigated by the Sheriff’s Department.
“Transparency in law enforcement is vital to public trust,” said Tanaka. “There has to be civilian oversight. As it relates to Pasadena, I think the OIR lost its objectivity when its members and the sheriff became too close. I also think the Sheriff’s Department would do a very fine job for the people of Pasadena in working closely with the police department here.”