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California and the West

An Intense Nominee for Youth Authority

Law enforcement: Hard-driving Jerry Harper's career in the Sheriff's Department included some troubled times, but he gets credit for dealing with the agency's problems.

March 30, 2000|BETH SHUSTER and TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The man chosen by the governor this week to head the California Youth Authority has a resume that, on paper at least, makes him both a perfect and a potentially problematic candidate.

Jerry L. Harper rose through the ranks to the No. 2 post in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, where he was known for high standards, concern for detail and intense focus.

Harper, who retired last year after 37 years of service, is viewed by friends and foes alike as a workaholic who gave everything to the nation's largest sheriff's department, a trait that may have helped drive him into two stress leaves to deal with depression.

Harper also headed the department during an extremely tumultuous period in 1997, when the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report accusing it of housing mentally ill inmates in cramped, dingy cells where they languished for days or weeks without the medications they needed to keep their illnesses under control.

The situation--which apparently had gone on for years--was so serious that justice officials were preparing to take drastic legal measures to force the county to fix the problems.

But the department appeased federal officials by taking a number of steps, including hiring more mental health workers and moving the hundreds of mentally ill inmates out of their tight quarters at Men's Central Jail into the new Twin Towers Jail. The Department of Justice, however, continues to closely monitor the situation.

Additionally, sheriff's officials have struggled in recent years to fix a number of other problems in the county's overcrowded jail system, including the holding of hundreds of inmates past their court-ordered release dates and the mistaken release of a handful of others because of paperwork mix-ups. Several homicide suspects are still at large after being released in error.

Merrick Bobb, a nationally recognized law enforcement expert who serves as special counsel to the Board of Supervisors, said that although there were problems in the county's jail system during Harper's tenure, he credits the former undersheriff with taking the steps necessary to fix many of the deficiencies.

"One of the reasons I think there were so many improvements was because the department had someone like Jerry around," Bobb said. "Although the jail system still has a substantial way to go, I think Jerry can legitimately take credit for the measurable improvements in the last few years."

Harper's critics acknowledge that improvements in the jails were largely the result of the same personality traits they fault: his extreme dislike of criticism, his obsessive command of detail and his demanding nature.

Richard Foreman, former assistant sheriff, said Harper "took things very, very personally, more so than anyone else. He would read things in the newspaper and start bouncing off the walls and start composing letters to the editor."

Still, he is credited with forming a county task force that ultimately accomplished the opening of Twin Towers, which had sat empty for three years after it was completed. He served as the department's chief planner of security for the 1984 Olympics and, more recently, became an authority on riot and crowd control.

In Los Angeles County's Hall of Administration, Harper was known as a tough but honest messenger. County Chief Administrative Officer David E. Janssen said he will volunteer to testify on Harper's behalf when Harper's appointment to the youth authority comes up for Senate confirmation.

"I have the highest admiration for Jerry Harper and his management abilities and skills," Janssen said. "He basically ran the department for the sheriff, with a $1-billion budget."

Los Angeles County Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, a Democrat, and Don Knabe, a Republican, praised the former undersheriff.

"I found him to be very honest, straightforward and easy to deal with," said Yaroslavsky, who was recently appointed to the Board of Corrections, where he would serve with Harper.

Knabe, whose relationship with Harper extends back to the supervisor's days as a councilman in Cerritos, which contracts with the Sheriff's Department, said Harper had "a strong character. I always felt that he was dealing with me up front."

Within the department, Harper was known for being something of a taskmaster and disdainful of what he considered half-baked ideas. He almost always wore his uniform; his son and daughter-in-law are both sheriff's deputies.

Some called Harper the department's Omar Bradley.

"He was our soldiers' general," said Capt. Garry Leonard, who served as Harper's aide for a year. "Every deputy identified with him because he was one of us. He'd show up at the transportation bureau at midnight to see how things were going. He'd work 18 hours a day."

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