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Hutchens cites improvements in O.C. jails, defends decreased gun permits

June 22, 2009 |  3:55 pm

Hutchens Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens doesn’t yet have a 2010 election opponent, but she laid out what appeared to be blueprint today for how she plans to win voter approval.

Using the end of her first year in office as the hook, Hutchens cited a number of changes she’s made in jail management, claimed to have restored public trust in the office and said she’d fire any deputy caught lying in so-called code of silence situations.

She also touched briefly on her handling of concealed weapons permits, saying there are roughly 200 fewer than a year ago. About half of the reduction resulted from her review. 

The issues have been the most publicized and, in some cases, the most controversial in Hutchens’ first 12 months in office. The Board of Supervisors appointed her to fill the term of Michael Carona, who was convicted this year of witness tampering and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in federal prison.

A retired division chief in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department when appointed, Hutchens has never run for office.

Hutchens inherited a much-maligned jail management system, underscored by the October 2006 beating death of Theo Lacy jail inmate John Chamberlain at the hands of other inmates. A county grand jury and the Orange County district attorney issued a scathing rebuke of some deputies’ failure to do their jobs and later impeding an investigation of Chamberlain’s death, including lying to the grand jury.

Hutchens, flanked by her six-man command staff, said the changes include installing digital cameras in key locations and replacing paper logs of deputies’ activities with electronic logs that can’t be altered. Supervisory sergeants and lieutenants will inspect the jails more frequently on each shift and sergeants will work with the same deputies on each shift for more continuity, she said.

Addressing another grand jury finding, Hutchens said deputies won’t be allowed “nonprofessional Internet access” while on duty. The grand jury found that some deputies ignored many of their duties and instead watched TV and movies or played video games — and in some cases slept — in their guard stations.

Jailers will be expected to identify “shot callers” among the inmates — the common term for prisoners who come to assume jailhouse control over fellow inmates. Any jail staffer will be required to inform his or her supervisor in a timely manner if another staffer uses force on an inmate, Hutchens said. The district attorney’s office will investigate any jail-related incidents where death or life-threatening injuries occur.

Much of the early criticism aimed at Hutchens involved her publicized effort to review concealed weapons permits.

She dispatched with the issue quickly today, saying she took it on early in her tenure to erase public concerns that “guns were given away to friends of the sheriff” and said the permits have declined from more than 1,000 to fewer than 900.

The “code of silence” issue arose in April when an Orange County District Attorney’s spokeswoman took the unusual step of saying publicly that deputies changed their stories in an assault case, forcing prosecutors to drop charges against a veteran deputy after jurors couldn’t reach a verdict.

While originally angered by the remarks, Hutchens showed none of that today. She said the investigation into the incident is continuing.

-- Dana Parsons

Photo: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times