Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca threw his support Monday behind a proposal to set up an oversight commission for the Sheriff's Department, which has been beset by allegations of widespread misconduct and abuse of inmates in the nation's largest jail system.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina proposed setting up a permanent civilian oversight commission in September, after the U.S. Department of Justice announced that its civil rights division would investigate the treatment of mentally ill jail inmates in county custody.
Baca publicly took a stance on the proposal in a statement declaring that such a commission would be "consistent with my view on strengthening transparency and accountability, and would serve to further develop law enforcement skills regarding constitutional policing, procedural justice, civil rights and human rights as a whole."
The four-term sheriff is in a hotly contested reelection race in which his main rivals are former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and retired Cmdr. Bob Olmsted.
Olmsted came out in support of creating a civilian commission last week, and his campaign spokesman, Dave Jacobson, said Monday that Baca's stance is "completely reactionary and is clearly following Mr. Olmsted's lead."
Tanaka, who retired last year after a blue-ribbon panel accused him of helping foster a corrosive culture in the department, said in a statement that he supports oversight, but a commission "will not fix the root of the problems with the [department]. Oversight is only effective when you have good leadership that will respond to recommendations in a timely and sensible manner, not just when it’s politically motivated or necessary to save one’s job."
Since Ridley-Thomas and Molina proposed the plan, the Sheriff's Department has gone through further upheaval. Last month, federal authorities announced criminal charges against 18 current and former sheriff's deputies and supervisors involved in jail operations. The allegations ranged from abusing people who sought to visit jail inmates to impeding a federal investigation.
Also last month, a Times investigation revealed that during a hiring push in 2010, the department had accepted dozens of deputies despite significant misconduct issues that came out in their background investigations.
Patrisse Cullors, executive director of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, said members of her group met with Baca in late 2012, and at that time he opposed creating a citizens commission.
"It's good he's feeling the pressure of what it means to be an elected official," Cullors said. "This is a big deal."
The citizens commission proposal is on the supervisors' Tuesday meeting agenda, although it was unclear Monday whether it would actually come to a vote.
The item has already been postponed multiple times, as Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Don Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich signaled they would not support it. Those supervisors said a commission would be redundant and that the county should focus instead on setting up the inspector general's office to oversee the department.
The board voted last month to hire veteran public corruption prosecutor Max Huntsman as inspector general.
Ridley-Thomas said he hoped Baca's support of the commission would help sway his colleagues.
"Some of them seem to have been reluctant because they thought it would reflect poorly on the sheriff or create an unnecessary layer of oversight," Ridley-Thomas said. "Well, now that the sheriff has chosen to embrace the commission concept … I don't see what would stand in any other board member's way at this point."
A spokesman for Antonovich said Monday that the supervisor's opposition remained unchanged.
Knabe said in a statement that he does not "at this point" support the commission: "I think we should wait to decide until after the inspector general settles in and then look at an oversight commission."
Yaroslavsky declined to comment.
Activists focused on abuses in the county jails have launched a campaign to change Yaroslavsky's position, through phone calls and rallies.