James Hellmold got the call from a fellow captain in the middle of the workday.
The reviews were in, his colleague told him, and some were pretty nasty.
It was that time of year, when rank-and-file deputies in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department get to do what anyone who's ever had a boss wishes they could: tell 'em what they really think. In a newsletter delivered for all to see, department brass is picked apart and ranked by anonymous underlings.
Many captains view the scorecards with dread -- and understandably so. Sheriff's deputies aren't known for holding back. Among the zingers directed toward captains in years before: "couldn't inspire a flea to jump," "couldn't lead a sing-a-long" and "more slimy than a snake."
Some captains welcome the criticisms, others dismiss them, but rarely are they ignored.
Even Hellmold -- a perennial favorite -- admits to at least some trepidation. This year, his deputies again rated him "outstanding," but not without a parting dig, with one accusing him of playing favorites with "tall and muscular" cops. "Sorry, we're not all physical specimens and underwear models," the deputy wrote.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 25, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Captains' ratings: An article in the June 24 Section A on Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies rating their captains cited an example from the deputies union regarding the ratings of captains in Palmdale and Lancaster. The article should have made clear that those ratings were for prior captains no longer in those assignments.
The jab, the captain admitted, rang true. "I do critique our overweight deputies," said Hellmold, whose station covers Lynwood and other parts of southern L.A. County. "Maybe it's unorthodox because of political correctness ... apparently someone might have been offended who is overweight."
He says he won't stop, but he might think twice about being so harsh in the future. A wise decision, at least according to union reps, who contend that captains who brush off their critiques do so at their own peril.
In an organization in which hierarchy is king, and loyalty is demanded, the unsigned commentaries are a rare window into the candid thoughts of the men and women who police three-quarters of the county. Responding to those sentiments, the union says, can be key to keeping morale high.
The ratings started more than a decade ago as a way to help rookies avoid picking their first patrol assignments in the dark. Nearly all deputies start their careers in the jails, and when it's time to move on, they get to list preferences.
Some factors for choosing, like commute time or the jurisdiction's crime rate, are easy to gauge. But aside from chatting with veteran colleagues, deputies had no way of getting a feel for the morale and leadership style under the department's more than 60 captains.
So the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union for deputies, decided to start surveying its some 8,000 members.
What emerged from the start was dry, sarcastic humor -- often at the expense of department brass. A favorite dig among voting deputies, for example, is declaring where they wouldn't follow their captain.
"Would not follow him out of a burning building," one deputy wrote.
"I would rather take my chances jumping off a life raft and swimming with sharks than staying on with her leading," another wrote.
"I wouldn't follow him to a free lunch buffet," a third declared.
This year, union deputies ranked a captain out of Crescenta Valley last among his colleagues, mocking his apparent devotion to a musical instrument. "All he cares about is himself, and his piano," one deputy opined. The union recommended that he retire to "spend more time with your piano."
Union President Floyd Hayhurst said he ran into that captain at a conference just days after the critiques were printed and delivered to mailboxes from Lancaster to Monterey Park. "He was not a happy camper," Hayhurst said. "He wouldn't even talk to me when he saw me coming."
Hayhurst said he shouted, "Captain, it is what it is," but the supervisor, who declined to comment for this article, just smiled grimly and walked away.
The union conducts the survey independent of the department. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore called them "scrawls on a public wall ... you kinda look at them, don't take them very seriously."
The union board and its staff review the comments and pick which ones to publish. Many of the department's captains who oversee smaller staffs are not rated because too few ballots on them are returned. Union officials won't say how many members overall return ballots, although they deny critics' claims of a low number.
Some say the ratings are more a measure of who's liked, not who's good.
"They're stupid," said one deputy, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid publicly offending the union. "It's a popularity contest. I see no reason to participate in that."
He recalled one instance in which his captain increased the work schedule from three days a week to four [albeit shorter] days. "He got low ratings from everybody," the deputy said. "I wouldn't want to trust something that could be based on one unpopular action."
Captains often get railed on for not defending their "troops" in disciplinary issues, taking the public's side in citizen complaints or dishing out punishment when it's undeserved.