In his remarks after being sworn in as the 32nd sheriff of Los Angeles County on Dec. 1, Jim McDonnell didn’t mince words about the troubled agency.
“This organization has been through a long period of uncertainty and trauma — too long,” he said with some of his native Brookline, Mass., accent still intact, even after more than 30 years of police work in Southern California, mostly rising through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department to first assistant chief before becoming chief of the Long Beach Police Department.
“I’ve seen the despair in many of you who sought to rise above the divisions and the turbulence of recent years. Many of you felt you were being asked to choose between what was best for the organization and what was best for a few people who were only trying to serve themselves.
“And I’m telling you that as of today, those days are gone.”
After prolonged applause and even a few hearty hoots in the Board of Supervisors chambers, the married (to Kathy) father of two young adult daughters (Kelly and Megan) continued. “You have been through a civil war that has torn the department apart. But repairing this divide will bind us together. Now is the time for us to move beyond past divisions and fractures to heal and to emerge as a better and stronger organization.
“Today we have the opportunity to be able to start fresh, to hit the reset button and to welcome in a new error at the sheriff’s department,” he stressed. “The opportunities ahead of us will dwarf, defuse the plights of the past. We will succeed, but only by coming together.”
And the first Los Angeles County sheriff to be elected in a century from outside the department is certainly assured of facing those challenges.
Sheriff Lee Baca took early retirement last January, amid scandals that his deputies beat inmates, were promoted based on campaign contributions and even formed cliques modeled after street gangs. Eighteen current and former sheriff’s deputies were charged by federal prosecutors with abusing inmates and their visitors, along with obstructing an FBI investigation into corruption in the country’s biggest jail system.
Retired John Scott of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and undersheriff of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department served as interim sheriff of Los Angeles County. He participated in the badge-pinning of Sheriff Jim McDonnell with Kathy and Megan McDonnell.
‘The greatest job’
McDonnell, 54, acknowledged after his landslide election by a 50-point margin that he would be dealing with the aftermaths of multiple criminal indictments, an ongoing federal investigation and, most of all, a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree with oversight of the county’s jail system because of the dramatic rise in inmate suicides.
Still, the new sheriff in town was upbeat for most of his speech to more than 700 law enforcement officers, elected officials, community and religious leaders, and campaign supporters, plus family members and friends.
“To the men and women of the sheriff’s department, let me remind you that you have the greatest job in the world,” observed the nationally recognized authority on community policing strategies. “You get to serve the public and know every day that you made a difference in someone’s life. This is something many go their entire careers without ever being able to say, and we’re blessed to have. Ours is a noble profession and sacred duty. Yet with such privilege and power, comes tremendous responsibility.”
During his invocation, Archbishop José Gomez asked God to bless Sheriff McDonnell and his family as he begins serving the people of sprawling Los Angeles County. “Give him wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do it,” he prayed. “And give him humility to give him understanding and mercy.”
The archbishop asked for divine providence for the new sheriff and others who serve in public life in guiding them to build a society that reflects truth, love and judgment to serve and protect the sanctity and dignity of every human life.
“Open our eyes to see the humanness in every person, especially the poor and the weak, the immigrant and the prisoner,” he said. “Our Father, be gracious to the city and county named for your holy angels, so Los Angeles might be… a house of compassion and justice.”
After, Chief McDonnell fielded questions from the media on the steps of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration about the current conditions of county jails, transparency of the sheriff’s department and repairing rifts in the Latino community.
The Tidings also asked the lifelong Catholic what his bedrock faith brought to his new job.
“I think, you know, like people of any faith, you have a foundation,” he pointed out. “You have strong beliefs in right and wrong. And you have the ability to be able to reach inside in troubled times and be able to draw comfort from your faith.”
The criminal justice major at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, added, “I look at the faith communities throughout this country and the ability to be able to tap into those communities. To be able to enjoy a level of credibility by working through the various faith communities is a very good vehicle for our sheriff’s department or any police organization to build some of the bridges that maybe have been torn down.”