Brass Tacky

This week, former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted of obstructing an FBI corruption investigation of the jails he oversaw. But despite having once been a part of his fundraising machine, all I can think about is the Department’s new belt buckles.

I can go two ways here: ask what the hell these guys are thinking spending $300,000 on new belt buckles to give their uniforms more shock and awe, or write off new-guy Jim McDonnell as meddling and distracted.

Isn’t this the controlling, big spender schtick that the newly formed, McDonnell-supported Civilian Oversight Commission is supposed to question? 

You’d think so, but educated guesses say larger themed issues like excessive force payouts, lack of transparency, and heroin burritos are what the at-first-glance toothless civilian committee will be prioritizing. In fact, I’m told that, at its last public meeting, McDonnell ‘s perceived wardrobe malfunctions didn’t even make the Commission’s agenda.

With “overtime for everyone!” on the minds of its 9000+ deputies, as well as the Department’s persistently thin ranks, annual budget shortfalls, and the sort of image problems that make Kellyanne Conway seem like Emma Stone, it’s tough to see belt buckles as just what the rank and file needed. I mean, how many public engagement and sensitivity training courses would that kind of money buy? Maybe we should’ve started there.

Especially given the timing. Baca’s guilty verdict isn’t even off the wires yet and McDonnell is concerning himself with cosmetic issues? Yet cosmetic changes to deputy uniforms are exactly what’s on order.

Apparently, regulation baton holders, key rings, tie clips, name pins, and badges are making a sore thumb of the old silver belt buckles, and that is just plain destroying the look of an otherwise well-accented ensemble. McDonnell says it all needs to match, that continuity is required to remind suspects that his deputies are in charge.

Okay, so the silver buckle isn’t on the same page with the rest of the uniform’s brass. Does anyone outside of the Department – other than toy manufacturers who will now be forced to make the change as well – care?

Three years ago this week, I attended the first of several public campaign debates in the race to replace Sheriff Baca. The fast movers were out, some more shamelessly than others (one even asked me for my public endorsement). But all of their talking points sounded the same. Each man came off a little too Fifth Amendment in their desperation to avoid being linked to the Department’s cartoonish scandals. I placed bets that Undersheriff Paul Tanaka would be convicted and “the Long Beach guy,” Jim McDonnell, would get elected. I went to the Arclight with my winnings.

To be fair, ineptly-timed uniform tweaks are but a mere hint of LASD Mission Creep under Jim McDonnell, but as a related LA Times piece opined, his house cleaning and the theoretical solution of the Oversight Commission may not be enough to hold the Department accountable.

For McDonnell to use the conveyance of a deputy’s command presence on the street as an excuse to justify a $300k expenditure is baffling to many and downright worrisome to others. The LASD is one of the largest law enforcement operations in the United States, with eight geographically distinct facilities employing roughly 17,000 people. Jim McDonnell took over for a dismissive geezer who ran a law enforcement mafia and attracted hundreds of pseudo-philanthropic cop-groupie power brokers. Remember Baca’s response to being called out on all that before he finally declined to run again? “Don’t elect me.”

I’m not insinuating that McDonnell is following Baca’s path. But I am fearing the worst, as the issuance of inefficient, abstract, and executive order type commands seems to be a phenomenon these days. The LASD can’t afford to go there. It needs that old McDonnell equanimity we saw and heard during the campaign debates.

So c’mon, Jim. Point your elected power at something more useful than what suspects will think of your belt buckles. I get that we can all be a little OCD with what matches our shoes, pants, satchels, and so forth, but four inmate deaths in ten days? Let’s leave the uniforms alone ’till the Department is out of the woods.