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Shining the badge

Efforts by the new Orange County sheriff to repair her department's image are on target.

July 26, 2008

Orange County's new sheriff started off with reforms that were by and large symbolic gestures to clean government. Stripping badges from civilian volunteers, few of whom actually helped the department. Reviewing all of the concealed-weapons permits issued in recent years. Traveling without an entourage. Good for her. A few symbols of ethical behavior were exactly what the department needed.

This is, after all, the sheriff's department whose previous leader, Michael S. Carona, faces federal corruption charges alleging that he traded the power of his office for cash and gifts. Long before any charges were filed, Carona had racked up a reputation for sleaze that included hiring political pals and campaign donors for top administrative positions even when they failed to meet the minimum requirements for the jobs, as well as handing out badges and weapons permits to wealthy and influential supporters. He also traveled with a security detail of up to three deputies, whose code name for him was Braveheart.

What a difference a turnover makes. Carona retired in January so that he could accept free legal help -- or because he finally realized, after multitudinous complaints, that it was more than odd for Orange County's top law enforcement figure to be best known for the criminal allegations against him. Retired L.A. County Sheriff's Department Division Chief Sandra Hutchens, 53, was appointed in June after a remarkably open search process that included inviting the public to submit interview questions and to watch the finalists answer them.

Hutchens wasted no time getting to work. When a sheriff's office is most famous for its favor-mongering, the best first step is to take some ethical soap to the place. That's what Hutchens has done.

Of course, there are plenty of operational problems in the Orange County Sheriff's Department, especially the appalling dereliction of duty at Theo Lacy Jail, where an inmate was beaten to death in 2006 while deputies allegedly watched television and text-messaged. Fortunately, Hutchens has turned her attention to this more difficult task. This week she announced her command team, which is made up of experienced law enforcement officials instead of the political chums hired by Carona who landed in their own legal trouble and now are testifying against the former sheriff. One of the new top assistants has expertise in overseeing jails. Hutchens also has hired a consultant to examine the jail system.

Yet it's refreshing to see that Hutchens has kept one of Carona's favorites. Jack Anderson, who performed admirably as acting sheriff until Hutchens was hired, deserves a role in the department's turnaround. Finding a place for a member of the old guard isn't something that a pettier sheriff -- say, Carona, who sometimes acted with extraordinary vengefulness toward his challengers -- would bother doing.

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