Max Huntsman

Prosecutor Max Huntsman, now the Sheriff's Department inspector general, delivers his closing argument in the trial of Angela Spaccia, former city manager of Bell. "It's not a problem you can fix and wake up tomorrow and say everything's great," he said of the Sheriff's Department. "We want to be there watching so if something goes wrong, we can be in a position to do something about it sooner rather than later." (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times / November 20, 2013)

The newly instated inspector general charged with overseeing the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spoke to the public for the first time Monday, frankly laying out the problems facing the embattled agency.

"The bad news," read one of the first PowerPoint slides Max Huntsman showed in the Exposition Park meeting room. On his list: allegations of abuse in jails, gang activity among deputies, lax hiring policies and the ongoing federal investigation of the department.

"We have a challenge ahead of us," he said.

Huntsman's remarks were his first to the public since assuming the role of inspector general at the start of the year. Dozens of people — community leaders, politicians, residents and a handful of sheriff's deputies — attended the town hall meeting.

Huntsman's role was created on the recommendation of a blue-ribbon commission that investigated allegations of violence within Los Angeles County jails and determined that there was a pattern of excess force by deputies.

That panel recommended more independent oversight of the Sheriff's Department, calling for an inspector general who would report to the county Board of Supervisors, conduct its own investigations, monitor jail conditions and review department audits and inspections.

Huntsman was previously a supervisor in the district attorney's public corruption division and one of the lead prosecutors in the corruption trial of Bell city officials.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the accusations facing the Sheriff's Department, Huntsman said Monday, was that many were not appropriately handled by agency officials. He pointed to last week's indictment of two deputies accused of beating a chained inmate, the most recent federal charges against the agency.

"I don't know if those deputies are innocent or guilty," Huntsman said. "But I know for sure that that information should have gone up the chain of command … and it didn't happen."

Huntsman acknowledged the challenges in reforming what he described as a vast, decentralized agency and the previous failed attempts in doing so. Part of the problem, he said, was that the position of sheriff was an "insulated" one.

He called Lee Baca's decision to retire last month rather than seek a fifth term in office "incredibly good."

"He could have won reelection — I think he probably would have," Huntsman said.

The audience groaned.

"But he decided not to push that," Huntsman said. "And as a result, what you get is a choice in the election that's coming up."

Huntsman called on the public to help hold the Sheriff's Department accountable. He cautioned that although his office might be slow to effect change, the public momentum was in their favor.

"It's not a problem you can fix and wake up tomorrow and say everything's great," he said. "We want to be there watching so if something goes wrong, we can be in a position to do something about it sooner rather than later."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who hosted the event, said it was part of an effort toward "reform and accountability," which he said should be a "norm rather than an aspiration."

"We're no longer just talking about it," he said. "We're effectively doing it."

kate.mather@latimes.com