Top cop anointed

Sheriff’s audit calls the law-enforcement agency ‘at a turning point’; citizens group seeks more community involvement

Last Tuesday morning, Sheriff Lou Blanas walked into the county administration building at just before 11:30 a.m., where, 45 minutes earlier, the county board of supervisors had begun a hearing about the months-long audit of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

Blanas briefly addressed the supervisors, calling the audit findings “a great roadmap to the future” and echoing the auditors’ strong suggestion that the sheriff’s department more fully embrace the community, working with Sacramento County residents and neighborhood groups to help reduce crime.

Then came the portion of the meeting when community members are able to address the board. And Blanas left, with his second-in-command, John McGinness—who is also the lone candidate for sheriff—in tow.

Outside the board chambers, SN&R asked Blanas if he planned to stick around to listen to what members of the community had to say about the audit and his department.

“No,” Blanas said, dismissively waving his hand toward the ground and then walking out of the building.

The county’s largest law-enforcement agency could be at a turning point. There’s the June primary election, which will bring the county a new sheriff. Around the corner is a full audit of the department, which marks the first time since 1998—when Blanas took its reins—that the sheriff’s department is undergoing self-evaluation and working with the board of supervisors to set crime-fighting and budgetary expectations. However, so far, only one candidate has thrown his hat into the campaign ring: the Blanas-anointed 25-year department employee Undersheriff McGinness. Plus, both Blanas and McGinness have shown indications that they may not take the audit’s findings to heart.

Last year, two-term Sheriff and Natomas development-booster Lou Blanas—who during his tenure has come under fire for suicides and other violence inside the county’s jail, which he oversees—announced that he would step down.

So far, the race to replace Blanas is shaping up to be no kind of battle at all, with only McGinness officially declared. The deadline for filing to run for county office is March 10; however, when an incumbent—in this case, Blanas—does not file by that date, the deadline is extended five more calendar days, to March 15.

Two other possible candidates, who after Blanas’ announcement last year tentatively threw their hats into the campaign ring, have bowed out. Attorney Wendell Phillips, a former president of the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, had said earlier that he would consider a run. And Chief Deputy Bill Kelly, who oversees the jail, said he’d changed his mind about campaigning.

“I decided it no longer interests me,” he told SN&R. Pressed for further explanation, he added simply, “It just wasn’t something I wanted to do.”

People United for a Better Sacramento, a politically active community group, wants to put up a candidate to run against McGinness. “But we haven’t scared up anyone,” said the group’s president, Dave Tamayo.

Even if a candidate materialized before the deadline, he or she would have a difficult time raising enough campaign cash in three months to combat McGinness’ war chest.

According to campaign-finance-disclosure documents filed with the county Voter Registration and Elections office, as of the end of 2005, McGinness had more than $230,000 cash on hand and had already spent more than $73,000 on his campaign.

Much of McGinness’ donations have come from construction companies. Kit Construction Co., Vali Cooper & Associates, and Tsakopoulos Investments each have contributed about $1,000. Cimorelli Construction Co. of Rancho Cordova gave $5,000. Several bail-bonds companies have given to the campaign, as have several entertainment venues, including the Lucky Derby and the Aqua Bar and Nightclub, both in Citrus Heights.

And Blanas, who is acting as campaign manager for McGinness, gave more than $20,000 from his still-active campaign committee, which reported $51,000 in cash on hand.

Brad Buyse, a spokesman for the county elections office, said it is not untypical that few candidates file to run for offices such as sheriff and district attorney and for judicial positions, because there are experience requirements. To run for sheriff, a person must have a combination of law-enforcement experience and a college degree.

“That’s obviously a little bit of a deterrent,” Buyse said. “It’s also a necessity, too.”

After initially agreeing to an interview with SN&R for this story, McGinness later failed to respond to e-mails and telephone messages. He again, when asked in person at the county supervisors’ meeting, expressed a willingness to be interviewed but, as of press time, had not contacted SN&R.

Though the office of sheriff is nonpartisan, McGinness listed his political affiliation as Republican when filing his official candidate forms at the county Voter Registration and Elections office.

Kelly, the chief deputy, expressed a vote of confidence in McGinness.

“He certainly has been in a position to function as a sheriff and do a good job,” Kelly said. “And he’s a genuinely good guy. He does care about the community.”

Back at that board-of-supervisors meeting, when McGinness and Blanas left the chambers as community members were offered the opportunity to speak, the duo already had begun to discount the $592,738 audit.

The review of the department was conducted over much of last year by a team of two private companies: The Public Strategies Group from St. Paul, Minn., and Joseph Brann & Associates, a Southern California consulting firm.

Brann, a former police chief from Hayward, and Bev Stein, of The Public Strategies Group, who is a former Oregon legislator, reported their findings to the board. Among the critical findings, they said that the sheriff’s department does not focus on accountability, lacks emphasis on critical thinking and should work harder on a move to a more community-oriented policing model. The latter recommendation, wrote the auditors, “requires changes of attitudes, relationships, and operations at every level of the organization—from the top to the bottom.”

Brann advocates community policing, in which a law-enforcement agency works together with community members to bring down crime rates.

“Unfortunately, most law enforcement and public officials have a narrow view of looking at community policing as public relations,” Brann said.

Indeed, Blanas has publicly expressed disdain for the idea of working with the citizens he is sworn to protect. Most notably, he pooh-poohed the idea of forming a citizens oversight committee. Such an oversight body was not mentioned in the audit. However, Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, spoke to the board, asking it to consider the idea.

Members of a recently formed community group also spoke to the supervisors, demanding more community involvement in the audit process—involvement they say they were promised but that did not materialize during the audit’s first phase.

“It is necessary for the community to be involved in the next part of this process,” said the Rev. Ashiya Odeye, a spokesman for the Jail Reform Coalition, whose birth was sparked by recent publicity of violence inside the sheriff’s-department-run county jail. Standing outside the jail’s entrance one day prior to the board meeting, Odeye vowed that the group “stands here, ready to act as the eyes and ears of the community.”

As Blanas left the chambers, ignoring Odeye and other speakers, he was asked about one specific criticism brought up in the audit: the department’s use of take-home patrol cars. About 45 percent of the department’s vehicles are used by deputies to commute to and from work, according to the audit. It’s a practice that costs the county an unknown quantity of money and has not been proven to be an effective crime-fighting tool, according to the audit.

But Blanas, who just moments earlier had referred to the audit as a “great roadmap to the future,” immediately disagreed with the recommendation, saying take-home patrol cars are “a benefit to the community.”

“We get an additional hour out of the individual,” Blanas said. For example, he said, toggling into campaign-manager mode, “John McGinness has made a number of arrests.”