Sandra Hutchens understands when people ask to see the closet -- the office hideaway where her predecessor, disgraced former Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Michael S. Carona, kept a secret video recording system and a safe and who knows what else. It's just a closet now, cleaned out by Hutchens, who had a lot of metaphorical cleaning on her to-do list when she took over Carona's job in June 2008.
The longtime Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy and division chief was comfortably retired in O.C. when her husband urged her to pursue the job that Carona, convicted on one count in a five-count corruption trial, was forced to leave. (Carona is free pending an appeal of his conviction.) Hutchens was appointed sheriff by the Orange County Board of Supervisors and elected to the job outright by voters in June. She reads Alice Sebold and Stieg Larsson and cooks a mean Mediterranean lamb with apricots and cinnamon -- when she has time, which she hasn't lately. Why? Just a little matter of running the state's second-largest sheriff's office.
So you ran your first political campaign and won. How'd you like it?
It was an experience, I'll put it that way. Orange County is a lot different than L.A. County in terms of the politics. A lot of people viewed me as an outsider, which I was, but I've been a longtime resident of Orange County.
From the moment I got appointed, I spent a lot of time out in the community, so people would know who I was and to try to repair the reputation of the department. I would tell them I'd worked my way up through the ranks so I understood everything the men and women in this department do. I think that paid off. People liked the discussion about ethics, they liked the fact that I believe this office should be nonpartisan -- [candidates for sheriff] run as nonpartisan, but in the past it's been treated as partisan. I'd say I'm a sheriff first and a politician second. I would be asked questions like "Where do you stand on abortion?" My answer is, it's a non-issue; I don't make decisions related to that.
Where did the pushback come from?
I got appointed [in June 2008] on a 3-2 vote, and not everybody was happy. There was still this wave of anger about what had happened in the previous administration, and that carries over. Doesn't matter if you're the new kid on the block -- there's this distrust, and you've got to prove yourself.
Your critics have said, oh, she doesn't get Orange County culture. How would you define Orange County culture?
Maybe I was naive; I never saw the bright dividing line between L.A. and Orange County. We have a crime rate much lower than L.A. County; people are very proud of that. Business [is] very high-tech, very dynamic, but in terms of government, Orange County still has that small-town feel. People campaigning against me said, "She's going to bring L.A. to Orange County." One of my opponents said, "You drive up the 5 Freeway and you hit the L.A. County line, what do you see? Graffiti, trash." He goes through this litany, to invoke the image that that's what I'm going to bring.
What's it like inside the Sheriff's Department now?
I think morale is very good, even though we've had to make cuts. People say, "I feel proud about being part of the Orange County Sheriff's Department again." When I was first appointed, I met with the city managers and city councils [of cities contracting with the sheriff], and there was not one complaint about our service, not one.
There's the feeling that people in the [department] must have known [about the corruption]. They didn't know. The line staff were out there doing their jobs. They weren't living in [Carona's] world, they weren't going to the parties. I'm told that at staff meetings, [Carona's team] would say, "What can we do today to make the sheriff look good?" That's not how we run an organization.
Mike Carona did not have the experience or the background [in sheriff's work]. Mike Carona did not go out and make an arrest, he did not work in a police car, he did not work in a jail.
What I found was a department that did not have modern policing policies, did not have systems of accountability, a risk-management system. That was the biggest surprise to me when I came in.
Before you were in the running for sheriff, how did you regard the Carona scandal?
As a resident of Orange County, I was embarrassed. As a law enforcement professional, I was appalled. Here's what got me: to have this happen in a community that supports law enforcement. That was the scary part for me. If people don't believe in us and trust us, we have no power.
News stories said Carona handed out concealed-weapons permits to contributors and friends. You told The Times you'd review those permits. What happened?
I was trying to bring the office back into compliance with the law. Does this person have a circumstance that puts them at greater risk than anybody else in the population? To me, that's the criteria.