Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to ask the newly appointed inspector general of the Sheriff's Department to work with interim Sheriff John L. Scott to study setting up a civilian commission that would oversee the department.
The officials will look into how such a body could be structured and weigh in on whether they advise creating it at all. They will report back to the board by the end of June.
The supervisors also asked the county's attorneys to look into what steps would be required to create a commission with legal authority rather than a purely advisory body. That would probably require legislative action at the state level.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina proposed setting up a civilian commission in September, after the U.S. Department of Justice announced that its civil rights division would investigate treatment of mentally ill inmates. But a vote on the plan has been postponed repeatedly.
The other supervisors said they preferred to focus on setting up an inspector general's office for the department, as recommended by a blue ribbon commission that studied the issue of jail violence. That body did not make any recommendation on a citizen oversight panel.
The supervisors have hired former prosecutor Max Huntsman as inspector general and are in the process of staffing his office.
Tuesday's action will delay to at least July any final vote on whether to create a civilian commission, but proponents said they saw the move as a step in the right direction.
"I am encouraged that the board is comprehending how reform can and should take place," Ridley-Thomas said in an interview. "Legal authority is accountability with a capital A. That which we are limited to is accountability with a small A, but it is accountability nonetheless, and it beats a blank."
Patrisse Cullors, founder of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, called the vote a "great step in the direction of ensuring our loved ones' human rights are upheld," although she added that advocates would have to "make sure that the county does not get swept up in its own bureaucracy."
Since the supervisors initially considered the proposal, federal authorities have indicted 20 current and former sheriff's officials, and Sheriff Lee Baca has stepped down, leaving an open race to replace him in June's election.
Shortly before announcing his retirement last month, Baca voiced support for civilian oversight. Interim Sheriff Scott said in a recent interview that he would want to know more about how the body would be structured, but said he is "OK with the concept."
Several of the candidates running to replace Baca have also expressed support for the commission concept. So have the leading candidates running to replace termed-out Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Yaroslavsky, who asked for the county's attorneys to look into the steps required to set up a commission with "teeth," has not supported creating a purely advisory commission.