Is McDonnell’s Record as LB Police Chief an Asset or a Liability in Race for LA Sheriff?

Oct. 2, 2014 / By

After serving four years as the Long Beach Police Chief, and 29 years in the Los Angeles Police Department, Jim McDonnell now has his sights set on becoming the next L.A. County Sheriff in the upcoming Nov. 4 election. McDonnell touts his experience driving gangs out of Long Beach, fighting human trafficking, and bringing the Long Beach crime rate down to low levels. But what do Long Beach residents say about his record as police chief?

According to Laverne Duncan, Executive Director of the Andy Street Community Association (ASCA) in North Long Beach, McDonnell could be described as a “community-police” oriented leader.

Duncan says McDonnell regularly met with property owners to help turn around Andy Street, which used to be so afflicted with crime that even receiving mail was a challenge for residents.

“We were able, with the help of the police, to turn things around from about 60 to 70 police calls a month to what it is now, which is twelve, maybe eight,” Duncan said.

Beyond Andy Street, violent crime in Long Beach has fallen from 1911 in 2011 to 1494 in 2014, under McDonnell’s watch.

But has this success come at the cost of alienating already marginalized communities in the city?

Despite the city’s falling crime rate, there were 22 officer-involved shootings in 2013, six of which were fatal. That number was the highest it has been since 2008.

Xavier Henry of Men Making a Change said they worked with the Citizen Police Complaint Commission (CPCC) to report complaints on the rise in officer-related shooting, but to no avail.

“We met with two of the [CPCC] members and two police officers, and they said there was nothing they could do,” said Henry.

Before becoming the next L.A. County Sheriff, Men Making A Change Co-Founder Rico Belvins said that McDonnell needs focus on its improving law enforcement’s relationship to the community.

“If we could get that right we would have less unlawful experiences, along with less crime in a community where people and police are on the same team and not against each other,” said Belvins, via Facebook.

McDonnell said he agrees that community relationships are key, saying his number one priority will be “restoring public trust and pride” within the sheriff’s department, which has been plagued with scandals over the last few years.

Under Sheriff Lee Baca, who resigned in January, the department hired deputies with criminal backgrounds (which included Baca’s own nephew), convicted 18 of the department’s employees, and faced allegations of abuse inside the county jails.

“Unfortunately it takes a few people in the organization to ruin it for the others,” said McDonnell about the sheriff’s department under Lee Baca.

Still, McDonnell said he believes he can turn the sheriff’s department around using his experience working with different communities as Long Beach Police Chief.

“We have probably the most diverse county here in L.A. County, so the ability to be able to get to know the customs and traditions…is tremendously helpful,” McDonnell said. “I’m optimistic and hopeful that I’ll be able to bring that to the sheriff’s department.”

But not everyone agrees he has what it takes to build trust between police and the community.

McDonnell was also at the helm of the police force when it unveiled a controversial gang injunction in 2010, which resulted in a steep increase in gang-affiliated arrests: from 35 to 180 from 2009 to 2011, according to PoliceMag.com.

While LBPD credits gang injunctions for the decrease in crime in Long Beach, which was named one of the top five cities with gang violence in 2012, opponents of injunctions argue that when residents see their family and friends being pulled over by the cops because they look like they might be in a gang, it encourages distrust and resentment towards police.

“It instills fear in our young men of color,” said Long Beach youth organizer Chris Covington in an article by VoiceWaves.

Critics say that the injunction was not only ineffective at breaking up gangs but it also unnecessarily branded young adults with only weak ties to gangs in Long Beach as ‘gang-affiliated’.

“It does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do, which is to push people out of gangs,” said Ana Muniz with the Youth Justice Coalition. “When you’re listed on a gang injunction…youth can have problems with just going to the store.”

Despite the controversy of the injunction, cranking up efforts against gangs in Long Beach could have helped the city in other areas: fighting human trafficking.

Long Beach Police Department Vice Lt. Dan Pratt said to Gazettes.com that tagging on a gang involvement sentencing enhancement to a pimping and pandering charge helped the department put human traffickers in prison for longer sentences. In one case, a gang enhancement helped them send a trafficker to prison for fifteen years, when without the enhancement the trafficker would only be serving three.

Adam Anderson is the Executive Director of Kingdom Causes, a faith-based non-profit organization leading the Long Beach Human Trafficking Task Force, a coalition of agencies working with the police to end human trafficking in Long Beach.

He said Chief McDonnell, who has been working with the task force, shared a personal passion for fighting human trafficking with advocates.

One of the organization’s founding members, Virginia Zart, added that McDonnell has been a great partner with the task force.

“When he sends officers to our meetings it’s usually multiple officers,” Zart said. “We feel like we have a good relationship with the police department, and the officers who work on human trafficking issues are devoted to it.”

With McDonnell’s record in Long Beach being a key component of his platform for sheriff, McDonnell hopes to defeat former L.A. County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in a runoff this November.

McDonnell already received 49 percent of the vote in the June 3 primary.

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Ben Novotny

Ben Novotny

Ben Novotny is an alumnus of California State University, Long Beach where he majored in Journalism and minored in American Studies. At CSULB Ben was a staff writer for The Union Weekly, the student-run campus newspaper and was actively involved with the school's TV production studio. Ben was a Contributing Writer for The Long Beach Post and the Long Beach Business Journal and has been a Youth Reporter at VoiceWaves for four years.