Undersheriff Don Barnes Holds Lead in Sheriff’s Race

By TONY SAAVEDRA | tsaavedra@scng.com and KELLY PUENTE | kpuente@scng.com | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: June 5, 2018 at 7:23 pm | UPDATED: June 6, 2018 at 11:26 am

Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes appeared to be on track to become the county’s new sheriff, but it was unclear late Tuesday if he could lock the position and avoid a November run-off.

Duke Nguyen, an investigator for the L.A. District Attorney’s Office, followed in a strong second place, while Aliso Viejo Mayor David Harrington was in a distant third.

Barnes will win outright if he earns more than half the votes. But as of 12:45 a.m. Wednesday, Barnes’ majority margin was slim enough that ballots expected to be counted later this week could force a second vote. Voting officials say more than 188,000 ballots remain to be counted.

Barnes has campaigned as a virtual incumbent, hand-picked by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to succeed her and continue the department down its current path. Reached by phone late Tuesday, Barnes said he was excited by the early results and will work to “move the sheriff’s department forward.”

Barnes said his top priority is improving the operations and conditions in the county’s jails.

“It will always remain my number one priority.”

Though Hutchens helped to resolve some of the controversies she inherited upon her appointment in 2008, the department, the nation’s fifth biggest, with 3,800 sworn and civilian employees, remains embattled on several other fronts.

The new sheriff will have to resolve, among other things, the jailhouse informant crisis.

The high-profile trial of Seal Beach mass murderer Scott Dekraai, which ended last year, revealed that Orange County jailhouse deputies had routinely used informants to gather evidence against accused criminals, often illegally. That revelation upended several convictions in murder or attempted murder cases and prompted a federal investigation of the department’s operations. It’s also left several deputies refusing to testify for prosecutors in court, a problem that as recently as February was a factor in an accused murderer being set free.

Barnes, along with many in the department and at the District Attorney’s office, has said the informant problem was the work of a few rogue deputies and is essentially resolved. Harrington has said he would move to fire the deputies involved; Nguyen has said he will “make sure that the recent abuses of justice do not happen again.”

The new sheriff also will have to see if conditions in Orange County jails are safe for inmates and deputies, and that race-related violations against inmates aren’t systemic. Both issues were raised last year in a report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Also, the new sheriff will take steps to make sure the jail itself remains secure.

In January of 2016, three violent inmates escaped the men’s jail and spent a week driving through the state before being recaptured, a national news event that caused, in part, by failures of management within the jail.

Barnes, a 29-year-veteran, has held a high-profile role in the department, taking the lead in important news conferences and department projects.

Barnes takes credit for leading the department’s effort to move homeless encampments from the Santa Ana riverbed. He refers to those living in such encampments as attempting to live “without rules” and vows they will have to do so outside Orange County.

Harrington, the mayor of Aliso Viejo, also spent nearly 29 years with the department before he retired as a sergeant. He labeled himself a reformer, who views the department as strong but in need of retooling.

Nguyen, a detective with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office who lives in Tustin, believes people of color in Orange County face systemic racism, corruption and disenfranchisement. He has said he would like the sheriff’s department to work “for us and not against us.”

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