Sheriff McDonnell visits Manhattan Beach Rotarians, addresses sanctuary city opposition

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell became a target for immigration activists’ ire last March when he opposed Senate Bill 54, the so-called “sanctuary state” legislation prohibiting local and state police agencies from engaging in immigration enforcement.

McDonnell was the featured speaker Monday morning at the Manhattan Beach Rotary Club’s weekly breakfast at Verandas Beach House. During his talk he said that despite the fact that he became the face of the legislation’s opposition, his stance was not ideological but rather grounded in practical policing matters.

“I was painted as anti-reform, anti-immigrant,” said McDonnell, who grew up in Boston. “My parents are immigrants, from Ireland. I am not that way at all. But I want to be realistic, and I want to be able to set people up for success. So we pushed back aggressively because it wouldn’t have allowed ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] into our jails at all.”

McDonnell said the legislation initially proposed by State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin DeLeon would have prohibited any kind of cooperation between ICE and the Sheriff’s Department.

“It wouldn’t have allowed us to talk at all,” he said. “Now, we rely on ICE heavily, particularly in our sex trafficking investigations…because we have the largest port in the country, and customs is a big part of what ICE does. So for us to be precluded from communicating at all is naive and just foolish and it’s not good public policy.”

The legislation, which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law last month, specifically addressed these concerns. Brown was so emphatic about the compromise that, unusually, he wrote a signing message clarifying what the law will and will not do.  

“In enshrining these new protections, it is important to note what the bill does not do,” Brown wrote. “This bill does not prevent or prohibit Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Department of Homeland Security from doing their own work in any way.”

The law still clearly prohibits local law enforcement agencies from enforcing immigration law and limits who they can hold, question and transfer at the request of federal immigration authorities. But it does not prevent cooperation between the agencies. LASD and other agencies can allow ICE in its jails and can notify ICE about the pending release of an inmate in the U.S.  illegally if he or she has been convicted of a crime classified as a violent or serious felony, as well as several other crimes originally excluded from SB54, such as sexual abuse, repeated drunk driving, assault, burglary, possession of an illegal firearm, and drug dealing.

“He was going to sign [SB] 54 one way or another, so we were just trying to make it as good as it possibly could be for everyone in the state,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell said there was another unintended consequence in the original state sanctuary legislation  —  the fact that if ICE had no access to illegal immigrants in jails, it would increase the agency’s enforcement activities within local communities.

“If they can’t come in the jails, they still have the same target,” McDonnell said. “They are going to find that guy in the community, and when they go in the community to find that person, it’s not a controlled exchange of somebody in custody. They have to go find him, and sometimes that means kicking in doors at 6 o’clock in the morning —  and the fallout from the use of force that goes along with that. ICE will tell you that their job is different from ours. They don’t go looking for just the individual; if they find other people in the environment —  family, friends, relatives —  who are also undocumented, they all go. And so that puts us in a very bad spot in terms of public trust. We have worked very hard for a generation now to foster that in all our communities, and it would have turned that upside down overnight.”

Rotary president Mark Burton, who in his past capacity as an assistant city attorney for the City of Los Angeles worked alongside McDonnell, called him “a cop’s cop.” McDonnell worked 28 years on the LAPD and then spent four years as the chief of police in Long Beach before winning election to become LASD Sheriff in 2014.

“Every so often you meet someone so incredibly talented you say to yourself, ‘Boy, if that person can get the opportunity….’,” Burton said. “Jim got the opportunity, and look what he’s doing.”

“He’s one of most talented law enforcement executive leaders in the nation,” Burton said.  

LASD is the nation’s largest Sheriff’s Department. McDonnell said prior to becoming Sheriff, he thought he knew LASD, as well as an outsider, could, but was still surprised at the scope of operations once he took the helm. He noted that with about the same number of sworn officers as LAPD —  roughly 10,000 —  LASD covers not only the 470 sq. miles of LA but also more than 3,000 sq. miles of LA County. LASD provides services for 42 cities, 153 unincorporated communities, 177 parks, the public transit system, 16 hospitals and 300 county facilities.

But the biggest difference is the LASD jail system, which is the largest jail system on Earth.

“The LA County jail is unlike anywhere else in the world, an amazingly challenging operation,” McDonnell said. “The jail, on an average day, this morning, we have about 17,300 people in custody.  If you were to take Riker’s Island in New York and Cook County [jail] in Chicago and add them together, that’s about what they have, together.”
The LASD jail system, he said, has been hugely impacted by AB 109, which was enacted into law in 2011 and was intended to lower the state’s overall prison population but in reality shifted inmates from state facilities to county jails. McDonnell said LASD jails were designed to hold just prisoners waiting for trial or those sentenced to less than a year.

“Now I have almost 500 people who are serving five years or more. One guy is serving 42 years,” McDonnell said.  “…The population now is changed from what it was to one that is more violent, more sophisticated, and more medically fragile.”

Dealing with jail population, McDonnell said, is his biggest challenge as sheriff, one that has also been impacted by the lack of mental health facilities in the county.

“The population in our jails…one of the toughest parts of it is about 25 percent of our population are seriously mentally ill,” McDonnell said. “In my mind, they should not be in jail, they should be in a psychiatric hospital. But there are no facilities to handle them, so by default, the Los Angeles County jail is the largest mental institution in the country, if not the world. And we shouldn’t be one at all.”


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