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It's a showdown for O.C. sheriff finalists

Sandra Hutchens of Dana Point sees her L.A. County experience as the guide to correct O.C. problems.

June 10, 2008|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

The man lurking in the shadows of a dark alley on New Year's Eve stopped Sandra Hutchens in her tracks.

Hutchens was responding to reports of gunfire in a tough Lynwood neighborhood and spotted him in an open doorway as she and her partner hunted for potential suspects near a converted garage.

A rookie deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department when the confrontation took place nearly 30 years ago, Hutchens said she would never forget the deadly gun battle that ensued.

"He raised his gun. I fired three rounds," she recalled in an interview last week. "It stays with you. When you take somebody's life, I don't care who they are, you live with it forever. It's difficult."

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office found no criminal wrongdoing by Hutchens. Although a jury later awarded the man's family about $1 million in a wrongful-death lawsuit, Hutchens maintains in hindsight that she had no choice but to use deadly force that night.

A tough lesson learned, Hutchens said she used the incident as an example in teaching others throughout a career that took her from the streets of L.A. County, to inside the nation's largest jail system, and ultimately to division commander overseeing homeland security. Now she is one of two finalists to become Orange County's next sheriff.

Those who have worked closest with Hutchens say she has everything it takes to be sheriff, describing her as bright and a polished administrator who is trusted and respected by her troops and has the political savvy and street credibility for the job.

"She's very effective in getting people to do the right thing. She does that by example," said Los Angeles County Undersheriff Larry Waldie. "I think the world of her. I hated to lose her. I think she would be a great sheriff."

Dennis Dalhman, a retired Los Angeles County assistant sheriff who was a sergeant overseeing Hutchens at the Lynwood station, agreed. He said the way she coped with the shooting and the fallout spoke volumes about her character, surviving an event that has ended many law enforcement careers. "The people of Orange County couldn't do any better," he said.

But she faces at least one significant opponent in Supervisor Chris Norby. He pushed hard last week for the immediate appointment of Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, arguing he was clearly the more qualified finalist.

Barely a year into retirement, the 53-year-old Hutchens lives in Dana Point with her second husband, Larry, a retired assistant police chief for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and their dog, Tucker. They have no children. She has a brother who works as a sheriff's deputy in L.A. County.

Hutchens, born in Monterey Park and raised in Long Beach, was hired in 1976 as a secretary for the Sheriff's Department a few years after graduating from Woodrow Wilson High. Initially interested in a career as a court reporter, she changed her mind after some deputies encouraged her to sign up, and she asked herself, "Did I want to sit in a courtroom and take notes on court cases, or did I want to be a part of it?"

With similar ambition, she decided to go for the Orange County sheriff's job. She couldn't stand being on the sidelines as she kept reading one newspaper story after another about the undoing of the department and its former leader, Michael S. Carona.

As a facilitator and instructor of ethics courses in Los Angeles County, Hutchens said, she taught deputies to "do the right thing, especially when no one is looking." And she became most incensed by a scathing grand jury report into the fatal beating of a Theo Lacy inmate that found deputies allegedly watched movies, napped or played video games while inmates enforced their own rules.

Confronting and fixing the problems at the 2,700-bed Theo Lacy facility is a challenge that county supervisors hope the next sheriff can quickly tackle. It is considered a critical first step in restoring the public's confidence in the department.

"If someone is not doing their job in a jail, they're not going to do a good job in the field either," she said.

She did three tours of duty at the Sybil Brand Institute, a women's facility built for 900 inmates. She worked first as a custody deputy and returned as a sergeant and then as a lieutenant.

In that time, the inmate population exploded to triple its capacity and the jail has since closed, with plans to be refurbished.

Hutchens and her supporters suggest that her experience working in the trenches of the nation's largest jail system, which has a population four times the size of Orange County's and has been plagued for years by violence and overcrowding, gives her an edge.

Unlike Walters, Hutchens has not fully embraced a priority of supervisors to replace sworn staff in jails with non-sworn civilian guards. She favors using a mix of sworn deputies, correctional officers and non-sworn civilians in the jails.

One of her concerns is that by relying exclusively on non-sworn civilians, the county would be shortchanged when fires or other natural disasters strike. During those events, jails can be locked down to free up a large pool of deputies.


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