Sandra Hutchens reflects on achievements after serving for more than 10 years as OC sheriff

By Greg Hardesty

Just before lunchtime on Dec. 20, 2018, Sandra Hutchens sat in her nearly empty office at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, her professional life mirroring that of her personal life: one foot in the door, one foot out.

Winding down her duties after serving for 10½ years as Orange County’s 12th sheriff (and the agency’s first female leader), Hutchens had to drive to Orange later that day to turn in her uniforms and job-related equipment.

On the home front, Hutchens and her husband, Larry, were in the process of moving from South Orange County to Riverside County, where they built a home on five acres of property they purchased in 1999.

Christmas nearly was relegated to an afterthought.

“We made reservations,” Hutchens said of her plans for Dec. 25.

Now, as she readies for her last official work day on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, when her successor, Don Barnes, will be sworn in, Hutchens’ mind is turning to some of the passions that will fill many of her days during retirement.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Stephanie McCormick, president/CEO of Make A Wish Orange County/Inland Empire, front center, gather with Make-a-Wish kids for photographs at the American Legion Newport Harbor Post 291.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Hutchens, 64, will dig her hands into her large garden and greenhouse in Riverside County to pluck tomatoes, cilantro, and other vegetables and herbs to use for cooking in her entertainer’s dream of a kitchen, which has two islands set four feet apart.

Italian on her mother’s side, Hutchens is an avid cook who specializes in Italian dishes, which is just fine with Larry, whose ancestors hail from the Mediterranean country beloved for such traditional dishes as arancini (stuffed rice balls), lasagna, and prosciutto.

Hutchens also will be spending a lot of time in her home office. She’ll take out a large pad and pen and begin working on the novel that for years she’s been planning to write, but until now has not had the time.

“I’m interested in writing something to do with Homeland Security, something along those lines,” Hutchens says. “And I might do a nonfiction book on leadership. I like to handwrite. My brain works better if I write things out.”

Added Hutchens: “The nice thing is, I don’t have to write for money. I can just write for fun. I think I’d be tense if I had to write for money.”

Hutchens also will be spending more time at the gym, doing weights and taking Pilates classes.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens talks to identical twins Olivia and Isabella Webster, 6, who attended a Solidarity March and Action Summit with their grandfather, Doug Webster, a member of the OC Sheriff’s Interfaith Adversity Council.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Hutchens has retired before, as a division chief within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which she joined in 1978 and where she spent her law enforcement career before being appointed O.C. sheriff on June 10, 2008.

But this feels different.

As head of the OCSD, a multi-faceted law enforcement agency that employs about 3,800 sworn and professional staff members and more than 800 reserve personnel, Hutchens has been tethered to her cell phone for the last decade-plus.

“In this job, something’s always going to happen — it goes with the territory,” she says. “It’s just the nature of the job we do.”

Hutchens became OCSD sheriff at one of the most tumultuous times in the agency’s history, replacing Acting Sheriff Jack Anderson, who had led the agency since the Jan. 14, 2008 resignation of former Sheriff Mike Carona, who served prison time for corruption.

Hutchens was widely praised as a stabilizing force in the wake of such controversies as the beating death of John Derek Chamberlain at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange on Oct. 5, 2006.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens gives her input with OC Sheriff’s Public Affairs Manager Carrie Braun, right, during an Interfaith Advisory Council Meeting held at the Sikh Center of Orange County.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The same year Hutchens was appointed sheriff following a nationwide search in which she beat out nearly 50 applicants, the county paid Chamberlain’s family $600,000 to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit. A grand jury investigation found the killing resulted, in part, from lax oversight by deputies.

Hutchens easily won election in 2010 and won an uncontested reelection bid in 2014. She announced her retirement in June 2017.

Her tenure wasn’t without its challenges.

Investigations are still ongoing into alleged misuse of jailhouse informants by the OCSD and Orange County District Attorney’s Office, and the department continues to weather criticism concerning the escape of three inmates from the main jail in Santa Ana in January 2016.

Hutchens handled those issues in the only way she said she knows how: fairly, directly and with transparency.

Challenges are promised when running an agency the size of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, but successes are earned. Of those, Hutchens has many.

“I’m very proud of the Interfaith Advisory Council – it really brought the faith communities together — and the OC GRIP Program, which is just such a success,” Hutchens says of two of her favorites programs that were created under her watch.

Behind the Badge spent 45 minutes with Hutchens on Dec. 20, asking her to go over some of her proudest achievements as sheriff as he prepares for a long break away from work with her husband, a retired assistant police chief for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The Hutchens have a Golden Doodle, Tucker, 11, and plan to travel a lot. Already planned is an African safari in 2020.

The following are Hutchens’ edited comments.

Standing during the playing of “Taps” are, from left, Tustin Police Chaplain Dane Counts, Orange County Fire Authority Battalion Chief Andy Kovacs, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, Tustin Police Chief Charles Celano, and TPD Lt. John Strain.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

RIGHTING THE SHIP

I walked into a very rough storm. I had a very short period of time to start to make some changes in a department that was just still taking hit after hit over stuff that had happened a year or two earlier.

The John Chamberlain investigation had been botched by the department — that was still being discussed. Two assistant sheriffs left because they were going to be interviewed by the Orange County Grand Jury.

When I came in, I didn’t have a full command staff and I didn’t know the people in the department. I’m proud of being able to come in and assess what the problems were, and to start to address who I needed to put in place (in top management).

The custody division obviously needed some attention, because what happened with Chamberlain pointed to a number of issues, including the department not cooperating and allowing the DA to do their investigation, which is protocol.

When I came in, I ordered an outside audit of the jail. And the patrol side wasn’t being supervised appropriately, so I brought someone in to manage that. Significant incidents were not being reported up the chain of command, and there were things that really needed to be reviewed.

The department was behind the times in terms of policy and procedures, as well as risk management, accountability. We got all of that on track, and we’re a much different department today.

I don’t think that the prior sheriff was focused on (accountability) for an agency our size. And so we were able to put all of these changes in place in the midst of a budget crisis. We were forced to make cuts. I laid off members of the command staff, and I laid off about 100 employees at the lower levels of the organization.

A multi-agency Color Guard posts the colors at the start of the Orange County Peace Officers’ Memorial Ceremony & Candlelight Vigil. At right is La Habra Police Chief Jerry Price and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

I focused on not having the public impacted by reducing our patrol operations or reducing our jail supervision.

We made the cuts, and the public never felt it. We knew we couldn’t maintain those cuts for long, because you need a command staff. You need people overseeing operations, otherwise things start to fall off the plate.

When we found out that we couldn’t maintain this real thin command structure, I asked managers to take a promotion or serve at a rank one or two levels above what they were currently serving without the pay and without any promise of getting promoted.

I asked 16 managers to do that, and they all agreed to do it. Some did it for over two years. People forget that story. I had captains who were working at the rank of commander, and commanders who were working at the rank of assistant sheriff.

To me, that was a testament that we were pulling together as a department, that (my colleagues and employees) trusted me, and that they wanted the department to succeed.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens talks about the fallen officers who died in the line of duty during an Orange County Peace Officers’ Memorial Ceremony & Candlelight Vigil.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

CHANGING THE CULTURE

Changing an organization’s culture isn’t easy. I found that I could say anything I want, such as, ‘Hey, I want you guys to tell me when I’m off track.’ Well, they’re not going to do that unless they trust me, and they’ve got to find out I’m not going to lop somebody’s head off when they tell me, ‘You’re wrong on this, sheriff.’

It’s so hard when you’re at this level to get unfiltered information. It took a while, but (employees) found out that I meant what I said, and I would change course if I felt that their criticism was correct. I knew I changed the culture when things that I had been saying would be coming out of the mouths (of other OCSD personnel) as if they were their ideas.

As sheriff and as a leader of any organization, I think you have to be consistent with your message. You have to live your message, and you have to walk your message. And when you do, people trust that the organization is going in the right direction and they start going there, too.

If you can get most people going in the same direction and they feel like the department is a good place, then they want to be part of it.

One thing I did learn is if a problem is being discussed around the table with the command staff, if I, as sheriff, interject my opinion, the discussion is over.

So I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, to listen to what other people have to say, and not to weigh in.

And I have a hard time with that. It’s a challenge, because I make my mind up pretty quickly.

You need to let the conversations take place, because you may learn something. If you shut off that discussion, you’re not going to learn anything, and (others) are going to stop opining.

OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens delivers comments during an OC Peace Officers’ Memorial and Candlelight Vigil.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

PUBLIC TRUST

We have the public trust back. We did not have it when I came in — not only the trust of the public, but the trust of the law enforcement community at large. It took a while to get that back, but we have that now.

I think another big step we made was this department was very insular in that (many employees) thought they were the best, which happens at a lot of large agencies. They think they don’t have to ask anybody else how to do things. And we’re not that department anymore. We look outside for best practices. We have people call us and ask us how we do business, and I think that’s really important. Once you think you’re the best and you know it all, you’re totally losing ground.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens brings up the topic of the homeless during an Interfaith Advisory Council meeting.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

It’s important to address any criticism and to be transparent. We’re all constantly learning as an organization, and we’re not afraid to change.

I had a picture of Lincoln on the wall (in my OCSD office) that a friend of mine painted. I read a lot about him and the challenges he faced. He went through some of the most challenging times in history.

On another wall, I had a painting of Winston Churchill. My staff bought me it because they know I’m a huge fan of him. I’ve studied him. I’ve read his books. What an amazing man.

The (two paintings) were just reminders of the importance of me being strong and doing the right thing, amidst severe criticism. You’re always going to be criticized in this job. You have to have thick skin.