The CopDoc Podcast: Aiming for Excellence in Leadership

The CopDoc Podcast Ep004 - A Chat with Retired LASD Sheriff Jim McDonnell

January 18, 2021 Sheriff Jim McDonnell Season 1 Episode 4
The CopDoc Podcast: Aiming for Excellence in Leadership
The CopDoc Podcast Ep004 - A Chat with Retired LASD Sheriff Jim McDonnell
The CopDoc Podcast: Aiming for Excellence in Leadership
The CopDoc Podcast Ep004 - A Chat with Retired LASD Sheriff Jim McDonnell
Jan 18, 2021 Season 1 Episode 4
Sheriff Jim McDonnell

 Retired Sheriff Jim McDonnell from the LA County Sheriff's Office talks with Steve Morreale about the current state of policing, on The CopDoc Podcast.  Jim was previously First Assistant Chief with the LAPD, and Chief of the Long Beach PD. 

Show Notes Transcript

 Retired Sheriff Jim McDonnell from the LA County Sheriff's Office talks with Steve Morreale about the current state of policing, on The CopDoc Podcast.  Jim was previously First Assistant Chief with the LAPD, and Chief of the Long Beach PD. 

[00:00:03.945] - Steve Morreale

Hello, everybody, this is Steve Morreale. You're listening to The CopDoc Podcast, and I am very, very happy to have a very good friend and colleague, Jim McDonnell, the former sheriff at Los Angeles County who also was the chief in Long Beach, and before that, the first assistant chief at the Los Angeles Police Department, where he worked himself through the ranks. So I want to welcome you, Jim, and I want to want you to give the listeners an opportunity to know a little bit more about you, how you got into policing and how long you've been at it.


[00:00:34.125] - Jim McDonnell

Yeah. hey, Steve, thanks for having me on. Going into policing just about 40 years ago when I grew up in the Boston area, I went to college at St. Anselm in New Hampshire, majoring in criminal justice, expected or hoped anyway to go into police work in the Boston area or at least in the New England area. At the time, there were a number of factors, tax-cutting measures, and a number of other issues that were going on in the area that did not allow for my hiring in a timely manner after graduating from college.


[00:01:10.755] - Jim McDonnell

So I looked around the country to see where there was opportunity and a good reputation and with a Boston mindset, not really expecting to get on a job somewhere else because I didn't know anybody. And that was very much a factor in what happened in my experience. But I gave it a shot figuring that if I didn't at least try, I'd be kicking myself for the rest of my life or maybe what could have been. And so I looked at LAPD that they had a good reputation and they were hiring at the time.


[00:01:40.875] - Jim McDonnell

And so I came out and took the testing out of town, testing. They accelerated it, went back, finished college and got a letter from them saying, you did well in the testing, come back out to finish it. So I did. When I graduated, I went out with two suitcases, a gym bag and $400 bucks to my name and didn't know a soul in California, but figured, you know what, I'm young and this is the time to try and do whatever I can.


[00:02:08.745] - Jim McDonnell

And so I, I kind of thought big and went out and gave it a shot and it worked out. And I started the academy a couple of weeks later and twenty-nine years later left the LAPD as the number two person in the organization to then take on a position as chief for Long Beach and then later ran for sheriff and  worked in that role for four years and for the last two years now, working as a consultant on public safety issues, on a variety of different formats.



[00:02:42.785] - Jim McDonnell

So the experience you've had in policing from a street officer to the chief executive at major organizations, when you're looking at them now just two years away, what do you see as the major maybe the three issues that police are confronting? And do you think. They need help. Do you think they're moving in the right direction? Do you think they're communicating well enough, given the pushback that has come from across the country?


[00:03:16.865] - Jim McDonnell

You know, this has been a very difficult year for everyone, but I think as difficult a year as I can remember or even imagine for those engaged in policing, because it seems no matter what you do, you're wrong. And, you know, there have been cases, particularly use of force cases, where the officer or deputy were left with no option other than to use force and then did so in what appears to be an appropriate manner. And still, they're vilified for the fact that they used force.


[00:03:52.955] - Jim McDonnell

And I think that's something that we as a society need to re-evaluate where we are on the issue of what is the role of police in society. We have asked so much from police for so long that the expectation has become that when there's a problem, you give it to the cops, let them handle it. And the police are, you know, amazingly capable to do a lot of different things. But the more things you add to the pile, the less chance there is that you're going to get proficiency on everything you do.


[00:04:29.295] - Jim McDonnell

And I think the prime example would be dealing with those who are in a mental health crisis. And when you think about what we ask of a police officer, they're dispatched to a scene of somebody who's acting out based on their illness. Sometimes the behavior will be anything from disorderly to violent, and they get there and with very little information, are tasked with restoring order from chaos in some cases and dealing with somebody who is not rational, who does not respond to direction.


[00:05:06.455] - Jim McDonnell

And potentially is hurting someone else or themselves. And so the officers have very little latitude in in in what their options are, they can't watch somebody hurt someone else. They can't watch somebody actively hurt themselves. And so they're tasked with intervening in a situation, again, with probably less information available to them than anyone would have in most any other profession before they get involved. And we expect them to be right 100% of the time and that the outcome will be optimal each time. And unfortunately, that's not always the case.




[00:05:45.185] - Jim McDonnell

And so when I think about that and I think about what the expectations are for somebody whose requirements for entry into the profession are most often a high school diploma, more often than not, the individual brings with them more than that from an education experience, training standpoint. But that's all that's required. And so when we put somebody through a six month academy and some places, it's less than that and expect to give them all the skills and tools they need to be successful in the field where we have conditioned the public that no matter what your problem, dial 911 one and we'll respond in quickly and take care of your problem.


[00:06:28.685] - Jim McDonnell

And yet we put this generally young person, early 20s in a car after having maybe spent a short time with a training officer, some period of time in the academy and expect them to, have 100 percent success rate. It's not reasonable. But yet when you look at the rate we do have given those circumstances, it's amazing how successful we are that we hire good people. We hire people with a good heart who generally speaking, are compassionate, our public service oriented and want to do the right thing and help people ultimately.


[00:07:09.785] - Jim McDonnell

And so we get the outcomes we get where I would say probably 98 percent of the time when we roll on a call, the outcome is very good that the person is taken into custody. If that has to be done without a use of force. And, you know, things work out as well as you could hope for, given the circumstances in that two percent or less of those cases where for some force is used, that's the cases that get all the attention.


[00:07:41.165] - Jim McDonnell

And certainly, when you think about this profession and how important it is to society, it's understandable why those that two percent of the cases are given such critical evaluation and examination because what we do is important to society and it has to be done in an optimal way each and every time in order for us to sustain any credibility we have with the public. Because the public does judge the profession based on the actions of a few or maybe based on one interaction in their own life with police.


[00:08:19.145] - Jim McDonnell

And they will judge everyone else, almost a million others in this profession to that standard. So it's critical that each of us be an ambassador for the profession, for our organization, for our community. And that's a lot to ask when you look at, the entry-level requirements and really the job itself, when I when I look at. What's happened in the last year in particular, it's very painful after 40 years of watching the field and participating in the field and just seeing a deterioration in support, and it seemingly accelerated almost overnight this past year.


[00:09:04.895] - Jim McDonnell

And couple that with the issues of dealing with Covid, you know, a worldwide pandemic. At the same time, we're having protest marches and the dialogue amongst so many in the nation to defund or disband the police, which to anyone in the profession, it makes absolutely no sense at all. And so predictably, we're seeing crime go up, homicide in many cases spiking to 10-year highs. And when I think about just the stats that I can quote in Los Angeles in 1993 and going back to the 80s and in the early 90s, the level of violence was awful.


[00:09:52.435] – Jim McDonnell

But I think about the city of Los Angeles in 1993 had just under 1,200 homicides, and we have worked so hard in the policing profession, in city government and our community partners, in order to be able to help drive down those numbers with a number of different strategies across the country where the success rate has become. Instead of almost 1,200 murders last year in L.A., there are about 260. And so when you think about that success is significant.


[00:10:25.735] - Jim McDonnell

We should be celebrating that and trying to replicate it and take it even to greater lengths. And instead, that's almost forgotten. And now we're starting to see a significant uptick in murders and made many of our major urban areas across America. We know we know what works. We know what doesn't work. We have to do a better job in marketing what we do and who we are to the public that we serve because none of us can be successful unless we have the support of the public.


[00:10:59.005] - Steve Morreale

You know, with Covid so many first-line personnel, health care workers, police, public safety people were held to such high heroic status for a while and then very quickly now they're vilified, which is troubling. I want to switch gears for you, because something you just said, you talked about your partners.  But, at what point in time did you as a young officer, decide that you wanted to throw your hat in the ring test and look to become a supervisor and later in a leadership position?


[00:11:40.865] - Jim McDonnell

You know, when I went on the job, it was, you know, it was a goal of mine to work homicide. And if I could work homicide in Los Angeles, I felt like that would be a tremendous challenge, very rewarding. And something that, you know, was different, every day was exhilarating, and at the same time, you felt like you were doing something very beneficial to the community and giving the victim's family some closure.





[00:12:12.355] - Jim McDonnell

And I thought that would be a long way down the road to be able to achieve that assignment. And as it turns out, unfortunately, I guess because of the murder rate in L.A. at the time, there was a high demand for homicide detectives. And I had come from the gang enforcement side of the house. And so I worked gang homicides initially and then later divisional homicide. And when I think back on those days, the frequency of occurrence was such that it provided opportunities for those who wanted to be able to get into that line of investigation, were afforded that at an earlier point in their career than otherwise would have been possible.


[00:12:58.615] - Jim McDonnell

But what that did for me was give me the experience that I was looking for, but also opened my eyes to the fact that there are other jobs out there where you have the ability to be able to exert whatever leadership you bring to the table, whatever experience you have to share with others, and to be able to have a greater impact on not only the work that you're doing, but the work of others in this profession. And so I started to look at I made detective when I worked for organized crime and then homicide and then later looked at taking the sergeant exam and thought that I would do that maybe for a year to get the dual status as a sergeant detective and then go back to detectives.


[00:13:46.525] - Jim McDonnell

And once I got into the role of sergeant, I realized at that time just how much of an impact you can have. I still would argue that there is no more important job in policing than first-line supervision. You have the ability to be able to guide and mentor and train and to be able to shape the police officers who are coming on the job, who are cutting their teeth, who are out there trying to do a very, very difficult job in complex circumstances, in a way where no one can do it on their own.


[00:14:26.635] - Jim McDonnell

The things that we ask cops to deal with today are so complex that you need to be able to seek other resources to be able to get the right answers, to be able to bring the right resources to bear on whatever the issue you're dealing with is. And so a sergeant, I believe, has the ability to be able to provide those resources to know what's available out there beyond what they have in their individual toolbox. And then, as time went on, opportunities came, other tests came along. And I figured they'd let me know when I've gone far enough. And I continued to take tests and some worked out and some didn't. And I think the lesson I learned was never give up. If it doesn't work this time, give it a shot next time. Study harder to do more in the way of preparation as far as the right assignments, the right material to study and just exposure. And so much of success in policing, like any field, I would say, is having a good, strong network being out there and knowing the players, but at the same time also realizing that policing is and always will be a people business.



And every day is an interview. And everyone you meet is an opportunity to be able to show how proud you are of your organization, how much you care about the people you deal with, both the people you have the privilege to work with and lead, as well as the people who you're dealing with, who oftentimes on the worst day of their life that you can hopefully help make that a little bit more manageable for them. They'll never forget that.


[00:16:08.095] - Jim McDonnell

And that that is something that that carried me through some sometimes when you think, why are we doing this?


[00:16:15.595] - Steve Morreale

 I want to ask you this.  When you first get in, you're a sergeant. I'd love to hear your perspective on this, the difference between managing and leading.  In some cases, the job, the first line supervisors first to manage the group. Right, manage a group of people, make sure they're doing their job, that they're taking care of the documents, the response. They're responding, they're backing each other up.


[00:16:42.205] - Steve Morreale

But at some point in time, whether it has as a sergeant or, what you want, you get your feet under you or a lieutenant or a captain, that leadership becomes important. Do you see yourself as a mentor and a teacher or did you see yourself as a mentor and a teacher, to others?


[00:17:01.235] - Jim McDonnell

You know, I hopefully still do I think that any of us who have experience, training, education, we've been through something before that we have the ability to be able to share with others, that we are all teachers, we're all mentors, we're all supervisors.


[00:17:17.525] - Jim McDonnell

We all have a role to play where we can help others do their job better, safer and hopefully get a better outcome. So, you know, I do. I did and do see myself that way. And I hope everybody does because somebody who has. 20 years or 20 minutes on the job, they have something to offer someone else if we're willing to listen, and oftentimes I think we miss opportunities because we discount somebody as being a leader or a mentor or a teacher because they don't have as much time on the job as someone else or they or they don't have the rank that someone else says.




[00:17:55.875] - Jim McDonnell

Leadership is not about the stars on your collar or the stripes on your arm or you the amount of time you have on the job. Leadership is about looking for opportunities to do the right thing, to share what you have with others and to be able to rally the strength and experience of other people, to be able to share a common vision, to work together toward achieving a common goal. And if you can do it and have fun in the process and maintain good morale, all of that is is, you know, what leadership is all about to be able to do things the right way, which management is, but also to do it in a way where you enjoy doing it and you feel you're working on something bigger than ourselves, any one of us, and working for a greater cause.


[00:18:49.515] - Steve Morreale

You know, it's interesting because as a university professor, now I find that my success is not about me anymore. It's about students and about the success of the students. And for you, I suppose, as as as a chief and as a sheriff, you're only as good as your people, presumably, and developing those other people. Going back in time, can you tell me a situation where you made a mistake as a new leader and what you might have learned by it?


[00:19:18.555] - Steve Morreale

In other words, maybe you began to change the way you approach things that didn't work. Does that happen?


[00:19:24.315] - Jim McDonnell

Oh, yeah. I think if you don't learn from every experience and interaction you have, you always have an opportunity to be able to say, you know what, I could have done that differently. I could have done that better. And if you debrief with yourself, every interaction that you have to think whether at work or at home or in your interaction with your friends or just going to the store, we interact with people all the time and sometimes to the point where it becomes something we don't even think about, but particularly those who are wearing a uniform or who are clearly the police to whoever they're dealing with.


[00:20:04.065] - Jim McDonnell

You have an obligation to realize that. That interaction is a very big deal to the person you're dealing with, you may, for instance, on a traffic stop, you may stop 20 vehicles a day and interact with the people in those cars. But for that person, they may only get stopped once in their life. And so they remember everything from that interaction. Every word said the tone of the voice, the facial expressions, things that you don't even give a second thought to.




[00:20:34.575] - Jim McDonnell

This is just another stop for you or another opportunity to talk to somebody for you, but to them, they remember it all. So we have to keep in mind that we represent something much bigger than ourselves, that that badge on your chest, that uniform, that patch represents something bigger than any of us. And to put it in perspective, that it represents all those who came before us and gave, in some cases, everything, all those who will follow us, who will wear that badge and that uniform in that patch.


[00:21:08.595] - Jim McDonnell

And so we have a tremendous responsibility to be the very best we can be in every interaction we have with people, and particularly when we're in uniform or representing our department, our city, our profession.


[00:21:23.605] - Steve Morreale

So when you when you talk about that, you know, you've walked into a couple of different situations, you could have stayed with Los Angeles and been a sort of a one man band, a one man show for LAPD only.  But you moved you moved to LA, to Long Beach, and then you moved to the sheriff's department along the way, how important was it for you to listen to what was going on, you know, to hear what others were rather than saying, I know what's right. But more importantly, setting expectations and new accountability standards.


[00:21:58.795] - Jim McDonnell

Yeah, you know, when you when you go into a police organization in particular, obviously personnel, the H.R. process will do a background investigation on you so that you can get the job. But every officer, every employee of that organization does their own background investigation on you.  They call their friends. They call anybody that has interacted or known you over the years. And they make their own assessment based on what their friends think, what the people that they that they believe and think about you as a person, you as a leader. So I say that to say that you've got to think of your yourself, if you're if you are out there talking to people you are making and impression. 


[00:23:33.175] - Steve Morreale

So you could have been a one trick pony and just stayed with Los Angeles Police Department for your entire career, but instead you chose to move on. You went to Long Beach and then later as the sheriff. And those are two new organizations.


[00:23:45.055] - Steve Morreale

And the question then I was wondering was, you know, how did you how did you approach it? How did you walk in? Where did you walk in with a chip on your shoulder saying, I know what's best for you?  Or did you do it a little bit differently?  In terms of going on a listening circuit and before setting your vision and before dictating your expectations.  How did you approach that? Were you a good listener?


[00:24:09.475] - Jim McDonnell

Well, thank you, I think that for any leader, it's critical that you be a good listener, that you take in a lot more information, intelligence, if you will, before you act, before you give an opinion, before you set a vision on what you want to do.


[00:24:26.665] - Jim McDonnell

What you want to do is mildly interesting. If you don't have the background on the circumstances that the people are working under, that you're going to lead that. If you don't know what the culture of the organization is, the culture of the city and all of the things that are the intangibles but are so important, the customs, the traditions, what is viewed as sacred within the organization. You need to do a lot of listening to be able to take all of that in, because even if you think you know, the organization and I worked at LAPD for almost 30 years right next door to Long Beach PD and right next door to the sheriff's department.


[00:25:06.805] - Jim McDonnell

But you don't know that organization until you get inside it and you never really know the organization the way somebody who grew up in the organization will or have the sensitivities about certain things within the organization or the history or the relationships. So I think you go in humble and you go in realizing there's so much you don't know that you want to learn. And I think the tone you set about being open to advice to seeking out people who are stakeholders, people who have, you know, have had an impact.


[00:25:44.065] - Jim McDonnell

And when I say that, I don't just mean your predecessor or the people who worked at the highest levels of the organization, but people throughout the organization, both sworn and civilian people in city government who worked alongside the department, it's important to know what they think of the interaction they've had with the police, what the relationship is. And there's opportunities in most cases to be able to improve that. And communication is a big part of that. And then, you know, clearly setting expectations right from the beginning of, you know, the things that we all hold dear as police officers.


[00:26:24.475] - Jim McDonnell

You know, that they're doing their work in a respectful, professional manner, a constitutional manner and a manner in which that whether it's on video or whether it's not that for anybody who wants to see that, they will look at it and say, you know what, they did a good job. It was very difficult circumstances, but based on what they had, but based on what they knew, they did the best job they could. And I think if we all seek to have that kind of an outcome, no matter what we're doing, whether it's a field interaction or whether it's dealing with somebody on a disciplinary issue, dealing with somebody on a community relations issue or all of the many things that all of us deal with on a daily basis, that if we go into it thinking, you know what, this is important, I think then we get a better outcome than if we get tired, we get complacent, we get jaded, and we just look at things that I got to check the box and do this or I don't want to go to this community meeting.


[00:27:25.835] - Jim McDonnell

These people are not going to be friendly toward me or the department. That's an opportunity. But we don't often or too often, I think we don't look at it that way and we look at it as, you know, I just got to get through this and then get on to the next thing. And you have so many things each day that you have to address that it's hard to maintain that because there is a fatigue factor and we're all human beings at the end of the day.


[00:27:50.375] - Jim McDonnell

And so it's easy to say this is harder to do it. But I think people who are looked upon in retrospect as the best leaders are those who can keep that mindset that every day, every interaction is critically important for themselves, for their organization and for our profession.


[00:28:11.525] Steve Morreale 

That's great advice. You know, you have me thinking about a number of things. And one of them is what, you know, what your core principles, the two or three things that guide you that are core to you. What would they be?


[00:28:27.855] - Jim McDonnell

Well, I think being true to your own values, you know, remembering where you came from, not thinking that you're anything special because of stripes or bars or stars, that you're doing a job and that you're representing the people of the jurisdiction that you work for and that.


[00:28:50.135] - Jim McDonnell

Well, while policing is special, none of us as individuals are special. They're all there doing a job. And when I say that, I believe that we're doing a special job and special people to do that. But what I what I mean to say is that we shouldn't expect to be treated special. We should expect to be treated respectfully, we professionally. But I think too often there's a fine line between command presence, which is critical and arrogance or the perception of arrogance by people that we may come in contact with.




[00:29:27.065] - Jim McDonnell

And I think if you were to talk to people who are the most critical of police officers or the policing profession, you would hear that as a complaint that I didn't like the way I was treated. I didn't like the tone. I didn't like all of that. And granted, we send police officers into the very worst of circumstances. And it's very hard to maintain that level of professionalism, of all the things that we ask. But police are special people in that the bar is higher.


[00:30:00.395] - Jim McDonnell

The standards are very high. And well, while it's kind of. Kind of funny to say, don't expect to be treated special at the same time, the job that our people do, you know, and when you think about how many police officers there are in this nation, about 900,000 out of a population of 325,000,000, that's about one third of one percent of our population is charged with maintaining the safety of everyone else.


[00:30:30.885] - Jim McDonnell

Yes. And so it is a special group. It is a select few, relatively speaking. And we do ask an awful lot. But I think our own attitudes for our own mental health, for the image of the organization and our own reputation, it's critical that we constantly reevaluate for ourselves. You know, how did it work for us in that interaction? And could I have done it different to get back to your point about debriefing each situation and the reflection.


[00:31:01.895] - Steve Morreale

So we're running short on time to stay within the 30 or so minutes. But there's a few things that I would like to save for another for another day. And that is to start talking about how you how you began to run meetings, whether you were asking questions and listening. But that's for another day. But what books do you seek out to read and draw some of your inspiration from.


[00:31:31.525] - Jim McDonnell

You know, I like I like books on leadership. I like books not necessarily on police leadership, but the leadership in the business context, leadership in the military context and people who have overcome major challenges. And those challenges may be, in a military context, a big a big battle or it may be, challenges dealing with political situations that somebody was able to overcome and get the job done. Or it could be personal challenges that so many people face, whether they're physical challenges or dealing with issues that they didn't think they could get through and that it took a lot of fortitude to be able to get through it, And then to be able to share with others what they went through in the hopes that they'll make their journey a little bit easier.  Those kind of inspirational books, leadership books, I think are of tremendous value.



[00:32:24.945] - Steve Morreale

Last question, if you had a chance to sit down for a conversation with someone who is either famous alive or passed, who might that be?  Who would you want to pick their brain to understand how they did what they did?


[00:32:44.245] - Jim McDonnell

I don't know that I have an individual that I could identify, but our founding fathers in general and maybe, you know. Many of them to just see what they were thinking and how they came up with the Constitution, that we still hopefully live by today and the Declaration of Independence, the challenges that they faced, but the systems that they were able to put in place, the things that are the foundation for that we enjoy for our freedom, for the nation to think back in in a relatively short number of years, they were able to come together and to be able to give us the building blocks for what we enjoy today.


[00:33:26.545] - Jim McDonnell

And we refer back on a daily basis, and particularly those, you know, judges and attorneys who are looking for guidance from the Constitution and from what was penned by our founding fathers. And to be able to have that is applicable today as it was two hundred and fifty years ago.


[00:33:46.765] - Steve Morreale

Yeah, that's an interesting thought, because you think about Peel's Principles that were written back in eighteen hundreds and that they still are applicable today and that we have survived that that long.


[00:33:57.955] - Steve Morreale

That's pretty interesting. You know, history, history sometimes repeats itself and it certainly was challenged now. But anyway, I need to close but I want to say thank you. There's so much more that we want to talk about. I want to talk about with you. And I'm hoping that you'd be willing to join us again.


[00:34:17.845] - Jim McDonnell

No, absolutely, in my parting comment, I think, would be for those who are doing the job. God bless you. Hang in there. We're going to get through this. This is something that we see in our history in a cyclical way. The late 60s were probably the last time we saw it the way it is now. Today, we're dealing with social media, which is an accelerator, but the public needs the police. The police need the public. We have to work together collaboratively to be successful. And I think we're in a period right now where some don't see that. But they will soon.




[00:34:50.395] - Steve Morreale

I hope so. Well, I want to thank you. We've been talking to Jim McDonell, the retired sheriff from Los Angeles County, a New Englander himself. And I want to thank you for joining me, Jim. I appreciate it. This is Steve Morreale with The CopDoc Podcast. Stay tuned for other episodes in the future and have a good day.