New L.A. County supervisors poised to back sheriff's oversight panel

Newly elected L.A. County supervisors seem poised to create civilian oversight panel for Sheriff's Department

In a significant shift in policy, a majority on the newly configured Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors now supports creation of a civilian oversight commission for the embattled Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Backers have long argued that the commission is needed to provide greater scrutiny of a department that has been mired in scandals, including federal criminal charges related to obstruction of justice and mistreatment of jail inmates.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina proposed creating such a panel more than a year ago, but the plan was rejected in August. The three supervisors forming the majority said at the time that they wanted to focus on setting up the newly created county inspector general's office for the Sheriff's Department and questioned whether a commission would have any real authority over the elected sheriff.

But last week, Molina and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky — who cast the swing vote against the oversight proposal in August — were termed out of office and their successors, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and former state lawmaker Sheila Kuehl, appear prepared to reverse the vote.

Solis joined Ridley-Thomas in reviving the oversight question in a proposal slated for a vote at the board's meeting Tuesday. The proposal calls for the establishment of a civilian oversight body and a panel — made up of county attorneys and representatives of the sheriff, inspector general and supervisors — to hash out how the new commission would be structured and what its powers would be.

Kuehl said in an interview Thursday that she was also prepared to vote for the proposal.

Although the board's authority over the sheriff is more limited than it would be if he were an appointed police chief, Kuehl said that creating a civilian commission would help "bring sunshine into the everyday working of the jails" so that "problems don't fester."

Ridley-Thomas said the issue had gained urgency in light of the larger, national discussion stemming from controversial police use-of-force cases in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.

"The events across the nation as well as the events in Los Angeles County make it very, very clear that this is the appropriate and right action," he said.

Newly elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement that he also supports the proposal "and looks forward to working with the Board, Inspector General, and partners to develop a framework for civilian oversight."

Patrisse Cullors, director of the advocacy group Dignity and Power Now, which has pushed for civilian oversight, said, "I think it should have been passed two years ago, and we didn't have the right board for it — and now we do."

Cullors said her group wants to ensure that the commission has the "most teeth" possible. Among other things, members want the inspector general to report directly to the civilian commission, and for the commission to have power to subpoena sheriff's officials.

The move to quickly revive the civilian oversight proposal, along with other recent actions, may suggest that the newly configured board will take an aggressive stance in reversing decisions made by its predecessors.

On Tuesday, at the first meeting of the new board, supervisors voted to remove acting Chief Executive Officer Brence Culp, whom the previous board had appointed to the post last month, and replace her with Sachi Hamai, former clerk to the board.

Culp, who had been second-in-command to retired Chief Executive William T Fujioka, is a candidate for the permanent position, and board members said that allowing her to remain in the acting position might discourage other potential candidates from applying.

Solis and Ridley-Thomas also joined in another proposal slated for a vote Tuesday, relating to the hiring of department heads. Ridley-Thomas had objected to the previous board's decision to appoint internal candidates to head up some key departments, including the office of county counsel, without launching an outside search.

The other supervisors argued that the positions were too important to leave unfilled and that they needed to act quickly. Solis and Ridley-Thomas want to require that all future candidates for posts reporting directly to the board be recruited through a public search and competitive process.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

@sewella

Times staff writer Cindy Chang contributed to this report.

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