Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called for the county to take a greater oversight role over the Sheriff’s Department in the wake of Monday’s indictment of 18 former and current deputies on charges of abusing inmates and jail visitors.
“Ultimately, the next step in this process of reform is oversight and this should not be taken lightly because of the need to make sure that we are building a culture where no one operates under the impression they are above the law,” he said in an interview.
Ridley-Thomas said the mechanism would be a blue-ribbon panel that he and Supervisor Gloria Molina proposed earlier this year that has stalled for the lack of a third vote on the five-member Board of Supervisors. They will revisit the proposal in January.
Ridley-Thomas acknowledged that Sheriff Lee Baca would have to consent to increased oversight, but argued that it is in Baca’s “best interest” given the emerging controversy.
He said he would model such an effort after the commission that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department, which was rocked by major misconduct convictions in an anti-gang unit during the so-called Rampart scandal in the 1990s.
“There is a model that has made that Police Department better. It would seem to some that the county of Los Angeles would be anxious to do something similar if not better, particularly in light of today’s revelations,” Ridley-Thomas said.
“This is a cultural problem, fundamentally so, and this is tantamount in some ways to the stench of Rampart, without the same levels of brutality in this particular instance," the supervisor said. "But the corruption that it speaks to is most unsettling.”
The board has no official power over Baca because he is an elected official, aside from its control over the Sheriff’s Department budget. But supervisors have moved recently to take a more active role, most recently hiring an inspector general as a watchdog over the department.
The remaining supervisors declined or did not respond to requests for interviews, but most put out statements on the indictments. The most biting came from Molina, who has long been critical of Baca and said the acts by the U.S. Department of Justice were “disappointing but not surprising.”
“Reform starts at the top, and strong leaders don’t simply embrace reform — they initiate it,” Molina said. "Unfortunately, strong management has been absent from the Sheriff’s Department for years. These indictments taint Los Angeles County and the many hard-working, honest and dedicated sheriff’s deputies of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.”
[Updated, 4:20 p.m., Dec. 10: A spokesman for Supervisor Michael Antonovich said he did not receive a voicemail message seeking comment. During Tuesday’s board meeting, Antonovich called the alleged misconduct “a sad commentary for our county,” and predicted additional finding by investigators.
“We know that continuing investigations are going on and very likely this is only the tip of the iceberg and its going to go higher up the chain of command,” he said.]
Candidates vying for a seat on the board also weighed in, though they declined to say whether they supported Baca’s reelection.
Former state lawmaker Sheila Kuehl said she would look into using the power of the purse strings to force reform.
“The difficult thing for the supervisors is they really don’t have direct authority over the jails,” she said. “They do not have budget authority to say to the sheriff, ‘You must spend this money we’re giving you in certain ways’ so it’s been very limiting to them.”
But she said the board could theoretically set aside money for certain programs aimed at reducing jail violence within the county chief executive officer’s office, and require the Sheriff’s Department to bill the county for work.
“At least you would have some budget oversight that way,” Kuehl said.
West Hollywood Councilman John Duran called for the board to create an oversight commission for sheriff’s employees who work in countrywide positions — in jails, courts and probation — and allow the cities that contract with the department to create local oversight commissions for complaints within their boundaries.
“Smaller government is better. Local government I think is more effective and efficient,” he said. “Unfortunately I think the county has become so large, massive, unwieldy, it’s impossible to do so many different things.
"I think the county supervisors should give up some power and authority and push it down to the 89 cities in Los Angeles County.”