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Under fire: Orange County's new sheriff

O.C.'s political gunslingers target Carona's replacement.

May 26, 2009

After the political shenanigans of Sheriff Michael S. Carona, who left office in midterm to fight corruption charges, Orange County supervisors wisely reached outside the cozy circle of the local power elite for an independent-minded law enforcement leader. That's what they got in Sandra Hutchens, a retired division chief from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. No politician, Hutchens set about reforming some of the worst practices of the Carona years, including the granting of concealed-gun permits to campaign supporters.

The paradox here is that Hutchens' lack of a political bent might be her biggest weakness in an elected office. As she increasingly comes into conflict with the entrenched establishment, she risks being voted out in the next election. And after the supervisors hired Hutchens to lead the department into a new era, the question is whether they really wanted a new era at all.

Supervisors complained about Hutchens' clean sweep on gun permits, accusing her of heavy-handed tactics and insensitivity to the Orange County ethos. Perhaps so, but a change was overdue. An independent review board found this month that Hutchens had acted appropriately. Then a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas insinuated that the Sheriff's Department fostered an institutional "code of silence" in which deputies protected other deputies from accusations of abuse. It's worth taking that with a grain of salt: The spokeswoman is the wife of Mike Schroeder, a former consultant to Carona.

There are legitimate questions about whether deputies changed their stories after one of their colleagues was accused of unwarranted use of a Taser -- a case that Rackauckas' office prosecuted but lost. It's also encouraging to see the district attorney's willingness to question the behavior of sheriff's deputies, something that seldom happened in the old days. Hutchens has promised an internal investigation, but she would quell more doubts and gain more allies by asking an independent agency to conduct it.

There may be no way for Hutchens to win the favor of the Republican Party inner circle that helped put Carona in office, and it may not be desirable in any case. Not only is she an outsider, she's the outsider who took away some of their gun permits. But her job -- at least, if her goal is to keep it in the 2010 election -- calls for being disarming in other ways as well.

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