Student Spotlight

Learning to lead opens new paths for assistant sheriff

April 19, 2016
Assistant Sheriff Toni Bland

Assistant Sheriff Toni Bland in front the Orange County Sheriff’s Department administrative building in Santa Ana.

Toni Bland started her new position as assistant sheriff of Orange County in January, but step into her office and she immediately apologizes for not looking settled.

A reasonable person would certainly excuse her. In her new position she leads field operations and investigative services, including all street operations, investigations, the crime lab, the coroner’s office and emergency services. She supervises two commanders with 10 division commanders and the chain of command of sworn officers and on down the line. (Learn more about her career path by listening to the podcast Career Talk: Assistant Sheriff Toni Bland ).

Not quite a year ago, she also became Dr. Toni Bland, earning an education doctorate (Ed.D.) in organizational leadership from Brandman University as part of the first class of doctoral students.

Her advanced education wasn’t the only reason she earned the promotion from commander to assistant sheriff – she has 27 years of law enforcement experience – but she’s convinced it helped.

“I kept pretty quiet about it when I was in the Ed.D. program. I wasn’t sure I would finish; I didn’t want people looking at me like ‘oooooh, you’re a quitter.’ It was easier to focus. But when I got to the end and my dissertation was done, I told my boss at the time and he told everyone,” she says. They were suitably impressed.

Transformational change

Bland credits the Ed.D. program with improving both her technical skills, particularly in gathering and analyzing research, and soft skills such as being able to work in small teams, managing her time and working collaboratively.

The Brandman program didn’t just affect her career, it also changed part of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. For her “transformational change project,” a required component in the second year of the program and later her dissertation, Bland looked at waste management in the jails. While serving as a captain at Theo Lacy Jail, the largest in the county with 3,300 inmates and 420 staff members, she noticed that they were generating a lot of trash.

A previous captain had started recycling cotton from old T-shirts worn by inmates. Bland expanded on that and involved the entire jail in recycling, earning recognition at the city, county and national level.

Being part of a program that emphasizes leadership also changed her. When a deputy who was doing a project with an animal shelter came up with an idea for reusing scrap clothing and sheets and having inmate workers sew them (they can’t be recycled) into dog beds for the shelter, Bland was on board.

“It was a really great program, but I don’t know if I would have embraced it as much if I hadn’t been working on my transformational change project,” she said.

Since writing her dissertation, based on an analysis of what sheriff’s departments throughout the state were doing (or failing to do) when it came to recycling, she’s been working to create a guide for counties on how to partner with other organizations to improve recycling while giving inmates a skill they can use later and help the environment.

Public scrutiny

Bland’s years in law enforcement have had their challenges. She’s worked under difficult conditions, including the tenure of former Sheriff Mike Carona. Carona resigned in 2008, and in 2009, a jury convicted him of trying to persuade former Assistant Don Haidl to lie to the grand jury investigating Carona’s administration of the Sheriff’s Department.

At the beginning of this year, a jail escape and subsequent manhunt raised concerns about how the jails were being managed.

Like every law enforcement agency, Orange County has also felt the string of criticism voiced nationwide about bias and excessive force.

“We have executive meetings twice a week and we talk a lot about the national dialog and how we’re perceived and how we interact with the community,” she says. “You have to be transparent. You have to be willing to say you or someone on your team made a mistake and then tell how you’ll correct it.”

Bland says she also faces those conversations when she gets together with her family, including two brothers who feel it personally when unarmed black men get shot. “The circumstances are all different but we need to improve, particularly how we handle people who are mentally ill. You need to manage your emotions,” she says.

Training helps. “You have to be able to talk to every race, to children, to understand cultures,” she says, mentioning among other examples outreach to a mosque in Mission Viejo to help improve communication.

She’s not alone

Bland is a minority among a minority in law enforcement. Nationwide, only 12 percent of all law enforcement officers are black and only 12 percent of the total are women.

“It is still male dominated. We do have to work really hard to recruit women,” she says. She benefits, she says, from serving under a woman sheriff,O.C. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, and working along side of Assistant Sheriff Linda Solorza. “It’s a good group of people and it resonates throughout the department.”

Bland feels the same way about her Irvine cohort. Brandman Ed.D. students are grouped by campus into cohorts and mentored by professionals from outside the university. Her group was made up of professionals from business and nonprofit organizations, including Brandman staff members.

“We understood each other. The classes and projects related to business, which is why I found it so interesting. There are things I’ll know forever and that will help me personally and professionally for the rest of my life.”

Her doctorate also gives her credibility when she works on her next career goal, teaching law enforcement and criminal justice practitioners. “I would like to teach the cops of the future, just to make sure the profession is a robust, balanced community.”

We can stay the same or be progressive. The new sheriff was progressive so I felt I needed more education to keep up with her ideas — so if something did come up that I wanted to embrace, I would know the steps to take.” – Assistant Sheriff Toni Bland, on why she decided to pursue a doctorate.


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