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Exclusive to CityWatch: LA Sheriff Jim McDonnell Talks about Animal Crimes, Human Trafficking, and Kindness


ANIMAL WATCH-Sheriff Jim McDonnell served with the Los Angeles Police Department for 28 years before becoming Chief of the Long Beach Police Department in 2010.

In 2014, he was elected Sheriff of Los Angeles County, and, during his first term, the LA Sheriff's Department (LASD) was the lead agency in what is believed to be the largest cockfighting bust in the history of the U.S., with over 7,000 game fowl seized. He stated that the exploitation of these, or any animals, is a criminal activity and will not be tolerated in Los Angeles County. He emphasized that he supports enforcing laws in any instance where animals are involved and in taking these incidents seriously, because there is no way to accurately track the full impact of this behavior. 

Sheriff McDonnell also formed the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, which partnered in November 2017 with the Pet Prescriptions Team to provide “comfort” dogs for local victims rescued from the slave-labor and sex-trade industry. 

In an interview last week, Sheriff McDonnell shared with me personal thoughts and some very touching experiences involving animals who are important partners to LASD and the deputies who rely on and love them.  

One of these animal lovers was 29-year-veteran Lancaster Sheriff Sergeant Steven C. Owen, who was fatally shot on October 5, 2016, while responding to a burglary-in-progress call. Parolee Trenton Travon Lovell, 27, who was arrested at the scene, confessed last week to killing Sgt. Owen. Sheriff McDonnell called it a senseless crime, resulting in the loss of a very popular and respected deputy--and someone he would always remember for his generous spirit and kindness. 

Sheriff McDonnell recalled that during the first year after the election which transformed him from a lifelong career as a police officer to the 32nd sheriff of LA County, a group of deputies from the Mounted Enforcement Detail, including Sgt. Owen, visited him at his office and asked him if he rode horses. He responded, "I'm a city kid from Brookline, Massachusetts." They told him, "We have to get you out there soon, because within 30 days you'll be leading the Sheriff's Mounted Unit in the Rose Parade." 

He said he would never forget that Sgt. Owen took it upon himself personally to assure the Sheriff would be well-trained and have a comfort level with handling a horse under the very unpredictable circumstances of a large crowd and noisy environment on a parade route. He recalled the hours they were together during this training and said he will always remember him with the deepest respect and gratitude. He commented that this loss will be felt by many deputies who spent years with Sgt. Owen, not only as a fellow officer, but also as a trusted friend.  

At Sgt. Owen's funeral, Sheriff McDonnell called him a "role model and a hero," as he stood in front of Owen's riderless horse (also known as a caparisoned horsewhich accompanied the funeral procession. The riderless horse has a pair of boots in the stirrups tied up on the saddle and facing backwards in honor of the fallen partner.  


When Sgt. Owen's wife, Detective Tania Owen, a member of the Arson/Explosive Weapons Team, decided to retire recently, a staff member told me the Sheriff assured that her unit could arrange for her Black Lab K9 partner, Tank, to retire with her. She and Tank were honored at a special media conference on March 27, 2018, where the Sheriff issued a special commendation to Tank "for exemplary service." Detective Owen had dedicated over 30 years to the safety of residents and visitors to Los Angeles County, and she left with her best friend and constant companion still at her side. 


In November 2015, Sheriff McDonnell (photo left) announced the formation of the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, which would use a victim-centered approach to fight the heinous crime of human exploitation. The task force includes five federal, four state, and four county agencies, plus three local policing agencies, working with Sheriff’s detectives to focus on sex and labor trafficking investigations, and with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) which provides critically needed services for the victims, most of which are minors. 

At a press conference on Thursday, June 7, 2016, the Sheriff introduced the newest, four-legged partners from Pet Prescriptions Team, a volunteer organization dedicated to training pets to become therapy animals. Sheriff McDonnell told me that these “comfort” dogs work in the jails also, and it makes a tremendous difference in relieving stress. "The dogs are a common denominator for all people, regardless of why they are in custody," he said. 

With the trafficking victims, they provide a focus for attention and create an environment where the emotionally sensitive and frightened victims can feel safe enough to relax and interact with detectives during a difficult interview, which is crucial for both their personal recovery and prosecuting the traffickers. 

Sheriff Mc Donnell said, “This may be the most effective manner of disarming someone without them even knowing it. Victims can open up without reservation and provide important information to detectives that can be used to save others from experiencing similar tragedies.” 


Sheriff Mc Donnell told me that he regrets there was not much emphasis by police agencies on animal abuse and neglect when he began his career with LAPD in the 1980s and into the 1990s. But, even then, he was alarmed by the fact that many of the locations for gang activities had Pit Bulls chained or were keeping the neglected dogs in backyards to "protect property." He said it was "tragic to see the dogs" and that has heightened his understanding of the need for awareness of the treatment of animals that appear exploited or harmed. 

(Author's note: From the 1950s to 1970s, the LA County Department of Animal Control was part of the Sheriff's Department and every Animal Control Officer was a sworn deputy; however, the emphasis at that time was rabies control, not humane-law enforcement.) 


I asked the Sheriff about his childhood and decision to work in law enforcement. He said that he did not come from a family of police officers. His parents were working-class people in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he grew up with his brother and sister. He actually planned throughout high school to become an architect.  

However, he said, when he was in college he realized that he could not spend his days planning and drawing buildings for the rest of his life. He recognized that he needed to look at a career where he could constantly meet new people and have new challenges and feel he was contributing directly to society. He was attending St. Anselm College, which had a highly rated Criminal Justice program and he decided to enroll. He obtained his B.S. in Criminal Justice there (later receiving a Masters’ degree in Public Administration from USC) and joined the Los Angeles Police Department. He said he has never had a day of regret about that decision. 

He met his wife, Kathy, in Los Angeles and they have raised two beautiful daughters. One is an attorney and the other is pursuing a career as a scriptwriter.

I asked what he would advise any young person considering a career in law enforcement now. He responded, "I would tell them, it is not the right job for everyone, but, if it is the right fit for you -- and if you have the right temperament -- it is the best job on the planet. Remember that you will often be dealing with people on the worst day of their life." He added, "I would encourage anyone to consider it as a career option and an opportunity to give back."

Last, the Sheriff said he does not have a pet because of his busy, 24-hour schedule, but, when that changes, he said he will most likely be looking for a Labrador. Apparently, Tank worked his magic on the Sheriff's heart!


(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of LA employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


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