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With nearly 20 years as Santa Ana's top cop, Paul Walters is popular in the city and among his peers.

June 10, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

It's been 10 years since Paul Walters suffered a surprising upset in the Orange County sheriff's election, falling six percentage points behind Michael S. Carona, who, as the county's marshal, was barely on the political landscape.

The loss stung. It also launched the Sheriff's Department on a tumultuous course of scandal, including Carona's October indictment on federal corruption charges.

Walters quietly returned to his job as chief of the Santa Ana Police Department, where he remained largely out of the public eye. He never ran for sheriff again.

"It hurt for a while. I tried to do everything I could to let it pass," he said.

After Carona was indicted, some of the people who had endorsed Walters in 1998 nudged him again. Today, Walters is one of two finalists the Board of Supervisors is considering as Carona's replacement. The board's decision could come today.

Born in England in 1945, the child of a U.S. Army soldier and an English mother, Walters served in the U.S. Air Force before hiring on as a rookie Santa Ana street cop in 1971. He survived a Molotov-cocktail bombing as a patrolman and rose through the ranks of the department before he was appointed chief in 1988.

Walters has two sons, both law enforcement officers. Gary, 40, is a Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant. Michael, 29, is an Orange County sheriff's deputy.

Walters was an early advocate of community policing, assigning officers to work closely with residents to address neighborhood crime. In recent years, his department has used technology to track neighborhood crime trends and identify hot spots that officers track on computer-generated maps.

Santa Ana also operates the largest city jail in Orange County, with a capacity of nearly 500 inmates, most of them federal prisoners held under a contract with the city. Although the jail is about one-tenth the size of the Orange County jails that the sheriff operates, Walters' experience operating the jail has impressed some county officials.

He is an advocate of direct-supervision jails, in which guards are stationed permanently in barracks with inmates. In most Orange County sheriff's jail barracks, guards monitor inmates from the safety of glass-enclosed booths. Guards leave those booths twice an hour to walk through the barracks and check on inmates.

Most of the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana is not designed to permit the direct-supervision model that Walters endorses, but he said he would support slowly phasing in direct supervision where appropriate, particularly in the barracks at Theo Lacy Jail, the county's largest. It was at Theo Lacy that inmate John Derek Chamberlain was beaten to death while guards assigned to watch him sat inside a guard booth, at least one of them watching television.

"You want to be in there with the inmates because you get a sense of what's going on," Walters said.

"The Chamberlain death, if you'd have been in there, you'd have picked up on what was going to happen and you'd have been able to stop it."

Walters served as police chief until 2005, when he retired. He said he decided to come back to work because two candidates for his job died from cancer.

He became chief again in 2006.

With nearly two decades as Santa Ana's top cop, Walters is a popular chief in the community and among his peers.

He won a key endorsement last week when the Orange County Chiefs' and Sheriff's Assn. voted to support him for sheriff instead of the other finalist, Sandra Hutchens, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's division chief.

In a letter hand-delivered to supervisors, the association's president, Anaheim Police Chief John Welter, said Walters "has developed the trust and working relationships with all 23 police chiefs" in Orange County. That experience makes him a better choice than someone from an outside county, Welter wrote.

"There is no time for on-the-job training when facing issues that have significant liability," Welter said. "No one should take for granted the value of local experience when addressing significant local problems."

There has been some concern about Walters' personal life.

Financial filings from Walters' 2007 divorce from his first wife, Linda, indicate he had more than $100,000 in credit card and other revolving debt. Many police departments won't hire officers with enormous debt loads.

In an interview, Walters declined to discuss how he ran up so much debt.

But he said it would be paid off as soon as his former wife began receiving her share of his pension, which she obtained as part of the divorce settlement.

Today, just as he did 10 years ago, Walters is one of two candidates to become Orange County's top law enforcement officer.

This time, he needs the votes of just three supervisors to get the job. One vote will come from Supervisor Chris Norby.

"He's endorsed by every police chief in the county. We've seen the crime rate in Santa Ana go down in the last 20 years at a time the city has grown substantially. Paul knows more about our situation and can hit the ground running," Norby said.

If he is appointed sheriff, Walters won't look at it as vindication of the 1998 election.

In the last decade, the department's scandals have hurt law enforcement throughout the county, he said. In addition to Carona's indictment, two former top assistants have pleaded guilty to federal charges and there have been a series of scandals in the jails and the department's reserve deputy programs.

Walters said he was looking forward to the challenge of turning the department around.

"It will be a lot of fun. People say I'm crazy saying this will be fun. But when you're improving and making changes and making it better, it is fun."


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