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New O.C. Sheriff Ready to Put Plans in Action

January 04, 1999|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a new sheriff in town, but you might not know it from talking to Michael Carona.

The incoming commander of the state's second-largest sheriff's department speaks less in cop talk than in the vernacular of corporate America.

To him, taxpayers are "customers," law enforcement is a "marketplace" and the Sheriff's Department is a bloated organization where "fat" must be trimmed. As the county's top lawman, he'll make his touch felt in everything from how neighborhoods are patrolled to the way inmates are housed.

Carona's all-business approach to a job steeped in macho tradition is part of a shift in police departments across the country as a new breed of cop ascends to top jobs.

They are attempting to run their agencies more like businesses, interested just as much in crunching numbers and measuring performance as they are in catching serial killers and equipping their officers with the latest police gizmos.

"Before, you could be a good police chief if you were a good police officer . . . one of the biggest guys," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum of Washington, D.C.

"Today, not only do you have to be knowledgeable about policing, but . . . the police executive has to be someone who can deal with growth issues, politics and infrastructure matters, labor relations," Wexler added.

"It is no different than someone in a large corporate institution."

Carona, who takes office today after 10 years as county marshal, promises sweeping changes that are already shaking up the Sheriff's Department and, if successful, could become innovative models for other agencies to follow.

While most police departments focus on expanding their budgets, Carona vows to slash the Sheriff's Department's operating cost by 5%, or $15 million, through more efficient operations.

Under his plan, the department will undergo its first comprehensive audit in 14 years, and some administrative jobs now filled by sworn officers would be taken by less expensive civilian employees.

He also has proposed a new approach to dealing with drug offenders, who make up about 20% of the county's jail population. Building a lock-down facility designed to treat these inmates, he argues, would reduce overcrowding and keep released inmates from coming back again.

The treatment center would be the first of its kind in the state.

Carona also intends to establish the Sheriff's Department's first citizens' advisory committee to gain the perspectives of minority groups. And he said he will give more discretion to commanders in deciding how to police their communities.

It's a groundbreaking agenda that has already caught the attention of Los Angeles County's new sheriff, Lee Baca, who said he is interested in trying some of the ideas.

Experts said these changes represent a marked shift in the Sheriff's Department, which had been run for the last 24 years by Brad Gates, one of the most powerful political figures in county history, who has retired.

"When Gates came in as sheriff, this was John Wayne country," said George Wright, professor and chairman of the criminal justice department in Santa Ana College.

"Carona personifies the new, maybe the future, of law enforcement administrators," Wright added. "It will be interesting to see . . . whether other chiefs will buy into his philosophy. It is a slow, evolutionary process, but Carona will speed that up considerably in Orange County."

Businesslike Changes Slow to Reach Police

Business values are already being brought into municipal governments across the nation, sometimes by business executives-turned- politicians such as Mayor Richard Riordan of Los Angeles.

Change has been slower in reaching police agencies, which are often considered sacred cows when it comes to budget cuts and management scrutiny. But as governments struggle to do more with fewer tax dollars, even law enforcement is being forced to look at improving efficiency and re-examining the way it does business.

Observers say Carona will face an uphill battle trying to change a department very much set in its ways. During the campaign, Gates repeatedly asked whether Carona, 43, was qualified to be sheriff, and the powerful deputies union backed his election opponent, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters.

Still, many community leaders agree that Carona brings something fresh and innovative to the job, even if they aren't convinced he will deliver on all his promises.

One of his most popular proposals is the establishment of a citizens' board, which for the first time would give civilians a voice in advising the Sheriff's Department on policies and procedures.

Such committees have popped up at some urban police departments over the last 20 years but remain a rarity.

Carona said he hopes the board will provide him with perspectives from the county's growing Latino and Asian communities.

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