News Details

New Sheriff is Self-Described 'Change Agent'

New Sheriff is Self-Described 'Change Agent' 

June 10, 2008

By PEGGY LOWE
The Orange County Register

SANTA ANA – Sandra Hutchens, named Orange County’s first female sheriff on Tuesday, described herself as a "change agent" who promised to clean up a department rattled by scandals.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors made the appointment in a split 3-2 vote that, even with its final two candidates of Hutchens and Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, revealed a choice for an outsider who had no ties to former Sheriff Mike Carona.

Hutchens, 53, dismissed the notion that she was appointed along gender lines – despite the support of Supervisors Janet Nguyen and Pat Bates – and said she should only be considered in light of her nearly 30 years in law enforcement. She promised a housecleaning in a department that has been in the headlines for several years with tales of an indicted sheriff, a code of silence among deputies and a jail system in disarray.

"My vision is to make this the best sheriff’s department in the nation and a model for the other law enforcement agencies to look at," Hutchens said. "I think we have the people and the skills to do that and that is where I’m going."

Hutchens, a retired division chief with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, beat out 47 other candidates to replace Carona, who faces federal public corruption charges, and will serve out Carona’s term through 2010. She told the board during a public interview last month that she will run for election.

Hutchens is now the third woman in California to currently serve as sheriff, joining female officers in Fresno and Santa Clara counties.

Walters, a respected and longtime law enforcement official who ran against Carona in 1998, watched stone-faced as he failed to get the sheriff’s job for a second time. He later said he was disappointed by the vote but promised to work with Hutchens and the department.

"It was something where we thought we could really make a difference," Walters said of his decision to run again for the job with the support of the county’s 23 police chiefs. "It was a disappointing decision. But we’ll regroup. We’ll be fine. All the support we’ve received from everyone in the county, it was really heartwarming. Really, it made us proud of what we’ve been able to do together."

Asked whether he would run in 2010, Walters declined comment.

After the board’s vote, Hutchens was quickly thrown into the job, swarmed by reporters outside the Hall of Administration and then meeting with acting Sheriff Jack Anderson at the department headquarters in Santa Ana.

The board’s vote has been highly anticipated since January, when Carona stepped down and he named Anderson as the interim replacement. A standing-room-only crowd watched the supervisors vote on Tuesday and the camera that broadcasts board meetings on the county’s Web site crashed during the debate because so many were tuned to the historical decision.

Supervisor Chris Norby, a vocal Walters supporter for some time, tried to rally the board to his side, pointing out Walter’s long experience in running a big-city jail, his support from local law enforcement and his willingness to run for election in the past and in the future. Norby also cited Walters’ 20-year experience and Hutchens’ very recent "burst on the scene."

"He has been willing to put his life on the line and his career on the line," Norby said.

Norby was joined by Supervisor Bill Campbell, who echoed Walters vast experience and said it is sorely needed for a troubled department.

"The Orange County Sheriff’s Department is in need of a turn around, pure and simple," Campbell said. "When you get in a turn-around situation, you really want some one who has been there, done that."

But Bates, Nguyen and Supervisor John Moorlach said they preferred Hutchens’ long experience in a large department and her "thoughtful" decision to audit the department before making any changes.

Bates, who represents the southern part of the county where Hutchens lives, said she believed both candidates were qualified but that Hutchens has good experience with regional policing – a reference to the 10 cities in Bates’ district that contract with the sheriff’s department for services.

"Those are significant experiences to have on the challenges that are before us," Bates said.

Hutchens will be sworn in following a required medical and psychological exam. She will earn $208,000 a year.

Contact the writer: (714) 285-2862 or plowe@ocregister.com