for his thoughts
BY DANIEL BLACKBURN
The sheriff virtually quivers
with rage at the mere mention of her name.
Who's this upstart who has so piqued the county's top lawman that he has promised never - that's never - to talk about her again?
That would be Penny Harrington, former Portland, Ore., police chief and now Morro Bay resident who wants to form a Citizens' Oversight Committee to police the sheriff's department.
"Who is this woman?" Hedges recently railed. As Frank Sinatra might have crooned, he's got her under his skin.
On a sun-splashed morning two weeks ago, Hedges, resplendent in uniform dress green, was on the move at a San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce breakfast, shaking hands with sleepy business people even as he prepped for yet another public relations battle.
Hedges has been busy clearing the air, trying to maintain respect in the community for his department, which employs more than 400 civil servants, including 159 sworn deputies. The department has been under fire recently for two deaths, a $2.3 million settlement, and alleged sexual abuse by one of his deputies.
Hedges was at the meeting to utilize a scant four minutes that had been made available for him to debate Harrington.
The pair would cross semantic swords standing on a tiny stage at a chest-high podium in front of 200 or so chamber folks, about the merits of an oversight committee to keep an eye on the sheriff's troops.
Before things got going, and between sips of orange juice, the sheriff spotted two local reporters and threaded his way through the crowd to where they sat at a table near the back of the banquet hall.
He wanted them to know that this would be his last discussion with or about Harrington. He's pretty miffed, he said, that Harrington has never once sat down with him to talk about her plan: "Not once!"
Her plan is to form a citizen's group to oversee internal investigations concerning the sheriff's department. It would be, as envisioned by Harrington, a private but officially sanctioned group with real muscle and authority, and the potential for reviving what Harrington describes as flagging confidence in the county's law enforcement agency.
Similar groups have been formed in San Diego and San Jose, and other communities in the state are exploring similar options, according to Harrington.
The need for such a thing escapes the sheriff. And he takes it personally that Harrington, who moved to SLO County in 2000, happened to arrive on the scene just as Hedges' department was suffering through a particularly painful public nightmare, and then started making a big stink about it.
She didn't earn the attention she's been getting from the local media, Hedges complained. She's in the spotlight, and he can't fathom why.
"After all," he said recently, a conspiratorial tone creeping into his voice, "she's got some issues of her own."
He's referring to Harrington's hectic 18-month tenure as chief of police for Portland, during which she tackled the police officers association and ended up in a ball of flames after initially being hailed as the first woman to head a major metropolitan police department.
The incident that created her own Waterloo was the outgrowth of a comment her husband, a Portland police officer himself, made to the owner of a restaurant whose patrons included organized crime figures. The comment was construed by the chief's departmental opponents as jeopardizing an undercover investigation, and the chief was accused of being "soft on drugs." She was fired after lengthy, and sometimes secret, hearings conducted by Portland city officials.
Hedges isn't revealing anything that Harrington herself hasn't discussed in a variety of forums, including her own 1999 book, titled "Triumph of Spirit."
In the book, Harrington talks about her appointment in 1985 as Portland's police chief after having worked her way through various institutional barriers that women often encounter in a man's world.
She wrote that she "went from being a celebrity to a pariah. In only one year, I went from being Ms. Magazine's 'Woman of the Year' and one of Harvard Law School's 'Top 10 Most Influential Women in Law' to Time magazine's label of 'Portland's Tarnished Penny.'"
Charles A. Moose, who would serve later as Portland's police chief, called Harrington "an American icon."
"Harrington has never understood her place," Moose wrote in the forward to 'Triumph of Spirit.' She has always sought another place, and the scars have become part of her. When we consider how difficult it is to change a law enforcement agency, Penny's efforts really begin to take shape. Her ability to break through so many barriers in less than 25 years is the stuff of legends."
But on this morning the legend and the sheriff had come to joust for the benefit of the chamber members, to debate training procedures for the sheriff's deputies and the professional credentials of the former Portland chief - and the mood of the combatants was dark. They stood beside one another on the little stage, eyeball to eyeball, both fidgeting, both anxious.
Harrington hit the boards running, immediately mentioning Jay Anthony Vestal, who died while being arrested by sheriff's deputies in Templeton; Keith Yecny, who died after being booked into County Jail for allegedly driving under the influence of narcotics and possessing a stolen credit card; and Gerald Bernales, who collected $2.3 million after suffering a permanent head injury during an arrest. Harrington didn't ignore a recent sexual assault of a County Jail inmate by a guard, either.
She told the gathering that minorities were afraid to contact sheriff's deputies for help. She suggested that a problem existed in the way deputies were trained to deal with people, particularly people who were not suspected of committing a serious offense. And then she proposed that a panel of ordinary citizens be appointed and funded by the county and given the responsibility of overseeing sheriff's department activities that result in injury or death to citizens.
As he listened, Hedges grew noticeably tense. When it was his turn, after trying unsuccessfully to negotiate with Chamber President Dave Garth for additional talking time, Hedges snapped at Harrington's assertion that his deputies were receiving insufficient or incorrect training.
"Every deputy in this county completes Police Officers Standardized Training (POST), which is the state's standard for law enforcement, and much more," he said. "I'm not sure what she is talking about."
He wanted everyone in the room to know that he is elected by the people.
"I don't work for the county board of supervisors. All they do is approve my budget every year," he said.
Vince Morici, for more than two decades the county's administrative analyst, said that supervisors do control the sheriff's department budget, which this year topped $35.56 million. However, their overall control of the sheriff's department is limited to budget cuts that would annoy, rather than incapacitate.
"The board does have some influence. But there is only so much the supervisors can do" regarding budget cuts as a controlling device, Morici said. "California law obligates us to have county law enforcement, and the board is not going to eliminate law enforcement in the county."
As a result, the sheriff traditionally operates with near autonomy.
Days before the Chamber of Commerce meeting, Hedges gave a reporter a hint of his feelings toward Harrington: "My biggest disappointment was that she moved to San Luis Obispo County."
He's probably not exaggerating. And Harrington could just as well be talking specifically about him when she writes in her book: "The chief sets the tone. The attitudes, beliefs and priorities of the chief are directly and subtly transmitted to all employees."
"I don't know what she has described as her credibility," Hedges said. "She just shows up, and she's granted credibility."
Harrington's credentials are on the record. After her stint as police chief, Harrington was special assistant to the director of investigations for the state Bar of California. Then she helped found the National Center for Women and Policing and served as its director until 2001. She now has her own consulting firm, Penny Harrington and Associates, specializing, she said, in providing expertise to police departments across the nation.
But none of this placates the sheriff.
"She's got this self-serving, self-appointed committee that has yet to come to me to ask for one fact. I get confused," Hedges confides. "Where do they get the right to continue professing this lack of information? She's got a foothold with two newspapers, the Tribune and New Times, and about six people who attend these meetings."
According to his perspective, Hedges sees Harrington as having been given credibility "carte blanche."
"Yet," he added, "I have yet to see one instance where the department has not taken appropriate steps. They just say that we need it. Well, why do we need it?"
Hedges is firm in his belief that Harrington is not approaching her objective in an appropriate manner.
"There is only one person who can establish a citizen review board, and that is me," he told the chamber attendees.
Hedges also bristles at the way Harrington and her group asked the SLO League of Women Voters to host what he likes to call "the Inquisition."
That was a January "forum" at which Hedges sat alone on a stage and endured questions peppered at him by at least 100 citizens.
"They [Harrington's committee] went to the league and said they'd like to have me come and speak for two hours and answer questions," said Hedges. "Well, that's not talking to me. They go to the Board of Supervisors, they go to the newspapers. But they never go to me."
The sheriff contended Harrington gets all of her information "from the newspapers."
"And then she turns around and says there must be something terribly wrong with the sheriff's department. And that's it!" said Hedges, adding that as "various investigations come to a close, it is obvious that she is not as credible as she said."
At the chamber breakfast, Hedges mentioned the "colorful pasts" of some of the citizen review committee members.
Amid allegations that Hedges has used his investigative advantages to peek into the past of his pesty Penny, the sheriff offered a quick denial to New Times.
"I haven't had to," he said. "I have stuff sent to me on a regular basis. I get e-mails from people who go to the meetings."
When people ask about Harrington, he directs them to the Internet:
"There's plenty of information on her. Tell people to read the Portland Oregonian articles."
"He's really been attacking me, hasn't he?" said Harrington this week. "I've tried to keep it on a business level. But he thinks this is personal."
Harrington said she believes she and Hedges have just gotten off on the wrong foot.
"These are systemic problems, not just the sheriff. But he doesn't want to go there. He's been very defensive from the beginning. He feels I am disloyal because I'm a former police officer.
"He told me, 'The problem with you is, you think we have problems and we don't.' The sheriff is so convinced they are doing everything right.
"This certainly is not what I expect out of a chief or sheriff," she added.
Hedges doesn't expect to meet her expectations.
"If she doesn't like the way things are going," he said, "let her run for sheriff in 2006."
News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at email@example.com.