Addressing a Westminster gathering on a Saturday morning in February, Dave Harrington—one candidate hoping to replace retiring Sheriff Sandra Hutchens—recalled a 2017 Sacramento visit to lobby State Senate leader Kevin de León on a public-safety issue. Harrington’s story went like this: De León, a Los Angeles Democrat, walked into the room and said, “Is this the Orange County delegation? Y’all crazy! The Earth is round, not flat! And Travis Allen [the Huntington Beach Republican assemblyman seeking the governorship] is loco in the cabeza.”
A retired sheriff’s deputy and the current mayor of Aliso Viejo, Harrington, who looks like a no-nonsense army drill sergeant when displeased, didn’t appreciate the swipe at Orange County’s historic right-wing reputation. “I’m like, ‘Seriously?’” he recalled thinking to himself. “People with me there said, ‘Dave, please don’t say anything.’”
The Republican audience chuckled at the line.
“It was hard [not to confront de León],” he added. “Look, I’m a limited-government conservative, but I’m big on using common sense, and I will talk to everybody. I’m ready to fight for what I believe in.”
In the two-person race for sheriff, the differences between Harrington and Don Barnes, the current undersheriff, are pronounced, though both candidates boast nearly three decades in law-enforcement. Barnes is the well-groomed insider who changed party affiliation to Republican before launching his campaign. He often speaks robotically with rehearsed lines intended not to offend the wealthy establishment players flooding him with contributions. He insists Hutchens has done “a great job,” bolstering that fib by keeping his campaign website devoid of any mention of the department’s scandals that have earned national embarrassment.
By comparison, Harrington is the gregarious underdog outsider willing to utter unpopular stances when he sees ineptitude or vice inside an agency with an annual budget approaching $1 billion. He’s mature enough to poke fun at himself, too. On the criminal-justice policy front, he believes California propositions 47 and 57, which reduced penalties for certain crimes, bring “unintended consequences” that jeopardize public safety by putting criminals back on the streets before they’ve experienced adequate rehabilitation. But he’s most passionate talking about what he sees as repeated, unforced “failures of leadership” at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) under Hutchens and Barnes.
“People know something is wrong with the department now, and I’m trying to get people interested in the issues,” Harrington said. “That’s the challenge. I’m working every day to break through. We need to change the culture [at OCSD].”
He’s quick to say “personal animus” wasn’t the motivation for his candidacy announcement last May. He praises the sheriff for her lengthy career in a testosterone-dominated work environment and labels her underling “a nice guy, but a bureaucrat.” However, he mocks that duo’s refusal to accept responsibility for the chronic ethical and management scandals that have plagued OCSD. Worse, Hutchens entered office promising to create a department dedicated to transparency, accountability and honesty in the wake of Mike Carona’s corruption, which led to a 66-month federal prison trip and criminal convictions for his two assistant sheriffs.
“Hutchens was initially very calming,” Harrington explained. “But that didn’t last long. There’s been this constant drip of scandal. They blame an unfriendly press. The press isn’t the problem.”
Or, he notes, they fault inanimate objects for their messes. Take the January 2016 escape from the county’s maximum-security jail by three dangerous inmates—one of whom has been called the Hannibal Lecter of Orange County. Hutchens first tried to imply the escapees were miracle workers, then she found a better villain that allowed her to demand massive budget increases: the jail itself.
“That’s a completely misleading excuse to give the Board of Supervisors and the public,” Harrington said. “It wasn’t the building’s fault. It was another failure of leadership. [Deputies] weren’t doing the plumbing-tunnel checks like they should have been. If they had, the inmates would have never gotten out. This isn’t brain surgery.”
To highlight his concern, he pointed to OCSD’s reaction to the infamous jailhouse-informant scandal that has presently wrecked 18 felony cases. The agency ran illegal scams to trick pretrial, in-custody defendants into making self-incriminating statements in violation of the U.S. Constitution; approved of document destruction and perjury to cover up the cheating; and refused to comply with lawfully issued court orders to surrender related agency records.
“Hutchens had two choices: accept the judge’s orders or try to win an appeal,” said Harrington. “Hiding or destroying records isn’t an option. You can’t be a legitimate law-enforcement official while you’re violating the law.”
He says the core of OCSD’s problem is a twisted mindset. Too many employees “just want rank” and pretend nothing is wrong to angle for promotions. If elected, Harrington will prize “doers,” deputies who are not afraid to act in a crisis and challenge the status quo when it’s not working. “The problem is inaction,” he said. “Everybody is going to have problems, but it’s how you respond to them. Don’t sit on your hands. Be honest.”
Policing wasn’t always his aim. The 54-year-old, who grew up in a military family in Garden Grove and Buena Park, thought in college he’d become an accountant, but he changed his mind after participating in a 1984 civilian ride-along with a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department patrol unit that happened to answer a violent robbery call. The excitement impacted him immediately. “I knew this is what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to chase bad guys.”
In 1985, at the age of 21, Harrington joined OCSD to begin a career that would produce more than 1,000 arrests. He worked patrol, investigated economic and sex crimes, guarded inmates, monitored criminal street gangs, performed trainings, and hunted fugitives. The department awarded him the Medal of Merit in 2012 for his innovations.
His family loves public service. Harrington has coached youth sports teams, helped Habitat for Humanity and founded a charity. His wife, Michele, who owns a real-estate company, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. One of his sons fought in Afghanistan and is now a deputy sheriff in LA. The couple adopted two kids from Ethiopia several years ago.
After retiring in 2013, Harrington entered local politics, even though so-called experts told him he had no chance of winning a City Council seat. He won in 2014 largely because, with his wife’s encouragement, he exhaustively reached out to his neighbors during a walking tour. Three years later, the council named him mayor, an honor renewed in December.
He is praying for a second electoral upset. “The sheriff’s department should be a well-oiled machine that does things right,” Harrington said before nodding at me, an investigative journalist who has revealed OC law-enforcement corruption. “If we do, we put you out of business.”
Appreciating his good intentions, I momentarily pondered OCSD’s self-inflicted disasters that inspired hundreds of reporting exposés, smiled and, stealing a line from Liam Neeson’s Taken, responded, “Good luck.”
The election is June 5.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; earned six dozen other reporting awards; and been hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.