“I thought it was pretty sad what was going on,” says Hutchens, who watched the events in retirement from a senior position at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “But look at the previous sheriff and his two assistant sheriffs, Mr. [George] Jaramillo and Mr. [Don] Haidl. Carona worked in the courts [as a longtime county bailiff], not in the jails or on patrol. Jaramillo had been a police lieutenant for a day before he became assistant sheriff, and Haidl had no law-enforcement background. I don’t think any of us should be surprised by what happened, given all of that.”

According to Hutchens, fallout from the scandals got so bad that veteran deputies who’d always been proud to wear the department’s olive-green uniform in public were hearing nasty comments from citizens. “Morale got pretty bad,” she says.

Hutchens’ priorities have included restoring morale “to all the fine men and women” who work at the sheriff’s department and rebuilding the “public’s trust in our uniform.” Part of accomplishing both objectives, she tells me, is to punish internal corruption when it’s discovered. Lying is now grounds for dismissal, and she has installed “an early warning system” to detect potential problems.

Supervisor Chris Norby worries about the sheriff's totalitarian instincts
John Gilhooley
Supervisor Chris Norby worries about the sheriff's totalitarian instincts
Deputies' secret bird's-eye view of Norby in the "Supe Snoop" scandal
Deputies' secret bird's-eye view of Norby in the "Supe Snoop" scandal

“My predecessor had a hands-off policy [about investigating deputy conduct],” she says. “He wanted to keep everybody happy. . . . Is the system now perfect? No, but the difference is, I’m going to look into [public] complaints.”

On the job for nine months, how does she rate her performance?

“We are out from under the cloud,” replies Hutchens, before sipping her coffee (cream, no sugar). “Nobody’s calling this department corrupt anymore, and I’m getting positive feedback from the community.”

Exit Carona. Enter Hutchens. Find nirvana?

It’s not that simple. Our new reform-touting sheriff has found herself mired in bitter controversies, the subject of a “vote of no confidence” measure crafted by fellow Republicans, and the target of intense, behind-the-scenes efforts to thwart her winning her office outright during the 2010 election.

 *     *     *

A former high-school history teacher from Fullerton, Chris Norby is a gregarious, conservative county supervisor who will leave office next year due to term limits. On a recent afternoon inside his fifth-floor Hall of Administration digs with sweeping views of inland OC, he’s firing off opinions about unrelated topics: a death, a sports concept, an upcoming anti-redevelopment forum, the president’s Costa Mesa visit and Mission Viejo politics. Then, he stops and says, “Well, let’s talk about the reason you’re here. I’m sure some people look at her favorably as the anti-Carona.”

The “her” he’s talking about is Hutchens. By “some people,” it’s clear he means me. Along with Supervisor Bill Campbell, Norby voted for Walters to replace Carona. Nothing personal against Hutchens, he says. He believed the Santa Ana police chief and another candidate, LA Sheriff Commander Ralph Martin, were “far more qualified,” but he initially accepted losing that battle.

“Having a woman sheriff is a novelty, and it’s a nice novelty to have, especially after Carona,” says Norby, dressed in a tan suit and sitting in front of numerous framed personal photographs hanging on the wall behind his chair. He’s flanked by a large Apple computer monitor on his left and two ripe bananas on his right. His desk holds 11 stacks of papers and binders. A nearby conference table is covered in a blue-and-white picnic cloth. “After her selection, I even thought, ‘Great, we’ve got a Republican woman from South County in the job.”

But that enthusiasm evaporated quickly last year. Asked twice what he now thinks she’s accomplished, Norby pauses each time and says he can’t name a single item. He also finds her to be thin-skinned. He goes on to tell me that Hutchens, who used to visit him early in her appointment, stopped the practice after his public criticisms. He recalls, “I haven’t seen her in my office in months.” They communicate either through a lower-ranking sheriff’s official or not at all.

“I questioned Sheriff Carona, too,” says Norby. “He spent money on annual public-opinion surveys that he said proved the effectiveness of his department fighting crime. It was meaningless information that wasted public money. He didn’t like me saying that, but, hey, I can take it just like I can dish it out. It’s politics.”

There’s the rub for Norby. He sees Hutchens as an outsider from LA and, worse, a control freak with totalitarian instincts who doesn’t understand a simple rule in politics: “Don’t fix what’s not broken.”

He’s talking about the sheriff’s permits allowing certain qualified citizens to carry concealed weapons (CCW) in public. Soon after taking office, Hutchens abandoned what was considered Carona’s liberal policy. No longer would permits be distributed with little or no thought or, worse, based on contributions to the sheriff’s campaign committee. Anyone seeking a permit (or wanting to keep one) would have to demonstrate “good cause” (for example, a person who carries large amounts of cash in his job or is the subject of death threats) for needing it.

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