Three law enforcement veterans are vying to take charge of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, after Sheriff Sandra Hutchens announced last year, amid a string of controversies, that she would not seek re-election.
Undersheriff Donald Barnes, Hutchens’ hand-picked successor, has been with the department for 29 years and touts himself as intimately involved in most of the department’s operations and the only candidate with management experience. Since Hutchens’ announcement, he has been the public face of the department and appears at most major public events instead of the incumbent sheriff.
“There’s some experience…many aspects of high-level executive oversight that you can’t learn by being a Monday morning quarterback,” Barnes, a Republican, said.
His two challengers both say they would bring major reform to a department that has faced controversy after controversy.
The top-two vote getters from the June 5 primary will advance to the November election. If one of the candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote in June, he wins outright.
The election comes amid pending investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and California Attorney General into the illegal use of jailhouse informants by county law enforcement, and controversies over a 2016 jail escape by three inmates and conditions in county jails.
Aliso Viejo Mayor Dave Harrington, who retired from the Sheriff’s Department as a sergeant in September 2013 after 28 years, argues Barnes is part of a management team that has responded to crises by doubling down and shutting out public scrutiny.
“I think people trust the men and women on the street, but I don’t think management has done its job, certainly not with any kind of transparency with the snitch scandal,” Harrington, also a Republican, said in reference to the informants controversy. “The only way that’s going to get fixed is by shedding the light of day on it.”
Duke Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who came to the United States in 1981, says he will tackle “systemic corruption, racism and disenfranchisement” of minority communities. Nguyen is an investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. Before that, he was Santa Ana police officer.
The department needs to diversify its hiring racially and linguistically to improve trust with the changing demographics of Orange County, Nguyen said.
“It’s hard to represent a city that is very diverse because people are not comfortable talking to you,” Nguyen said. “To be able to have that trust, you have to have someone who speaks the language and represents the culture.”
Barnes is backed by most of the county’s top elected officials, including four of the five county supervisors, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, several state legislators, seven congressional representatives and the county deputies’ union. He said the Sheriff’s Department has admitted when it’s made mistakes and followed up by holding staff accountable and making reforms.
Harrington is endorsed by several mayors, including Irvine, Mission Viejo, Huntington Beach, Dana Point, San Clemente and Newport Beach.
Nguyen, the only Democrat in the race, has been endorsed by the Democratic Party of Orange County.
Hutchens was appointed in 2008 to clean up the department after her predecessor, Sheriff Mike Carona, was indicted for official misconduct and later convicted of witness tampering. She came from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and was credited with stabilizing a department where cronyism, sex scandals and allegations of abuse in the jails were rampant.
Barnes said when misconduct and mistakes have been identified, management has responded to fix the problem.
Regarding the department’s illegal use of informants, Barnes said he dismantled the jail unit that supervised informants and replaced deputies with seasoned investigators. Deputies have also been retrained on relevant laws and use of an informant now requires formal written requests authorized by the Sheriff, Barnes said.
“We responded appropriately, we’ve taken necessary measures to correct and prevent any similar incident from happening again,” said Barnes. “That is the responsibility of management – to respond appropriately and make corrective action.”
Both of Barnes’ opponents say that’s not true.
Although a trial court and the Fourth District Court of Appeal both issued rulings that said the department has long-standing “systemic” problems with illegal use of informants in jails, Hutchens and Barnes disagree. They cite an Orange County Grand Jury report – which has been disputed by legal experts – that attributed the issue to a few “rogue” deputies who acted on their own, outside the knowledge of management, and said deputies lacked proper training on the law and procedures for handling informants.
Nguyen said it’s not a credible argument given the voluminous evidence of informant use, and written memos between supervisors about it.
“I don’t buy that management didn’t know because this has been going on for an extended period of time. If management doesn’t know, they’re not doing their job,” Nguyen said.
Regarding the jail escape, where three inmates with violent charges escaped and were on the run for more than a week, Harrington said although some deputies have been disciplined, no management have been held accountable.
Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea was moved to professional services, while the commander who oversaw the jail system – Toni Bland – was promoted to Assistant Sheriff. Capt. Chris Wilson, who was in charge of the Central Men’s Jail, was moved to the Coroner’s Office and eventually demoted to Lieutenant, but retired with a captain’s salary.
“I take that as not being punished,” Harrington said.
Barnes said he disagreed with Harrington’s characterization, although he declined to discuss the issue in detail, citing confidentiality regarding personnel decisions.
“Yes, people were held accountable, and that included members of our management team,” Barnes said. “I was Undersheriff for three weeks and a day when the escape happened, and immediately took action.”
Barnes said he began inspecting the jails routinely and unannounced, and said conditions in the jails have dramatically improved.
“I think one thing the public does not know is we separated twenty employees from the Sheriff’s Department last year,” Barnes said. “We routinely hold people accountable.”
While Barnes criticizes his opponents for lacking management experience, Harrington sees it as an advantage.
“It’s a huge advantage because I’m not married to the bureaucracy and the way it thinks,” Harrington said. “No one person is going to single-handledly run that department, you have to have a good team.”
One of Harrington’s top priorities is reining in spending, starting with management. He called the rank of commander a “glorified captain’s position” that just “creates another layer of bureaucracy” and has proposed eliminating the rank.
“There’s a thought that they’re thin on management – but in reality they’re thin on leadership,” Harrington said.
As a sergeant, Harrington was a bike patrol officer along the Santa Ana Riverbed and said issues with homeless people camping in the riverbed were present in 2010, but when he and a lieutenant brought up the need for increased patrol, they were denied.
“It started with a very small population, they allowed it to fester, and they blame jurisdiction, Prop. 47 and AB 109,” Harrington said. “Had you taken responsibility for it before all those laws passed, when we offered you the opportunity to do it, we could have dealt with those problems as they came.”
Barnes and Harrington do share similarities. Both blame Prop. 47 and AB 109, laws that reduce penalties for low-level drug and property crimes and release some criminal offenders back onto the streets, for increasing local crime and exacerbating homelessness. They say the next Sheriff needs to take the lead on state legislation to change those laws. Both also lament the loss of Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, as a key tool that allowed law enforcement to push more drug offenders toward rehabilitation.
Nguyen said he supports the intention of Prop. 47 and AB 109, and believes criminals should be diverted from jails, but the legislature and court system must also work to provide people with adequate treatment and rehabilitation programs post-release.
Barnes and Harrington also oppose the SB 54 or the California Values Act, known colloquially as the “sanctuary state” law that limits law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Earlier this year, Barnes announced the department would post inmate release dates online to make it easier for federal authorities to locate unauthorized immigrant criminals upon their release.
Barnes called SB54 “bad public policy” and said the decision to post inmate release dates was based on a desire to curb serious criminals, not to affect the broader unauthorized immigrant community.
“If they’re coming out to look for Don, and you’re there, and you’re undocumented, you’re going to get swept up,” Barnes said.
He said of the 58,000 annual bookings in county jails last year (prior to the passage of SB54), 5,556 people were undocumented. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requested the transfer of 580 of those people, Barnes said.
“This is about criminals within the custody of our jail – it does not have to do with enforcement within the community,” Barnes said. “We don’t ask for the immigration status of people in our community – we have no desire to do that.”
Barnes acknowledged that fear of deportation has prompted many immigrant communities to interact less with law enforcement, pointing to scant participation in a bike helmet and car seat giveaway program, aimed at Spanish-speaking residents, in San Juan Capistrano. But he’s not worried the politics of the sanctuary state law will negatively impact the department’s ability to serve those people.
“We have other things in the community, outreach opportunities, to build trust with them,” Barnes said.
Nguyen says he supports the California Values Act and that it’s his job to enforce state law.
“We enforce the law governed by the state of California,” Nguyen said. “But we [should] still communicate with the federal authorities internally to provide public safety.”
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.