L.A. county begins hashing out final sheriff's oversight details

After a lengthy delay, Los Angeles County supervisors began to hash out final details Tuesday in the structure of a new civilian oversight commission for the Sheriff's Department, which has been racked by years of scandals over abuses in the jails.

The supervisors voted 4 to 1 to move forward with a process for approving members of the nine-member panel.

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FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post said the vote was unanimous. The actual vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich voting against the proposal.

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Under the proposal, the five supervisors would appoint one member each. The remainder would be chosen by the board from a list of 20 candidates recommended by an independent search firm, with input from advocates, criminal justice officials and the other commissioners.

Advocates who have pushed for the last three years for the county to set up the civilian panel said they were happy to see progress after several delays but took issue with many of the details in the proposed structure of the commission.

In particular, many were upset that the supervisors plan to allow former sheriff's officials to sit on the commission. They also pushed for a more substantial role for community groups in appointing the members and for a charter amendment that would give the panel power to subpoena records from the Sheriff's Department.

“We know that this is a good step, and we know that there are several things that are completely wrong with it,” said Diana Zuniga, a jail reform advocate who said her father was beaten by sheriff's deputies so severely that he now has a metal plate in his head.

A working group that studied how the panel should be structured recommended last summer — with a minority dissenting — against allowing former sheriff's officials to sit on the panel.

Dean Hansell, a former state and federal prosecutor and chairman of the working group, told the supervisors Tuesday that allowing former sheriff's officials to sit on the commission could undermine its credibility in the eyes of community members.

“To be effective ... it's important for each member to have credibility both with the Sheriff's Department and with the community,” he said.

Sheriff's officials pushed back against the proposed ban. The supervisors ultimately opted not to bar former sheriff's officials from serving. Board Chairwoman Hilda Solis said leaving the panel open to all categories of people “allows for individualized assessment of every potential candidate.”

Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has led the push for a civilian commission, called the creation of the panel an “unprecedented step forward” toward greater accountability and defended the decision to allow former law enforcement officials on the commission.

“This is not about anti-law enforcement from my point of view, it is about pro-accountability of law enforcement,” he said. “You want the best people to be part of causing that to happen, irrespective of their discipline.”

He pointed out that former inmates would also be eligible to serve on the commission. Current law enforcement officials and those who left their law enforcement jobs within the last year will be barred from serving.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she disagreed about allowing former law enforcement officials on the commission, but nevertheless joined her colleagues in voting for the proposed structure.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich cast the dissenting vote.

Antonovich’s justice deputy, Anna Mouradian, said the supervisor voted no because the other supervisors did not support a proposal that commission appointments should require a four-fifths supermajority vote.

In addition, he preferred another method for selecting the commissioners and disagreed with wording in the proposal that would allow people who are in violation of immigration laws to serve on the panel, Mouradian said.

Jail reform advocates have also pushed for the civilian panel to have subpoena power, but the supervisors postponed a decision, opting to wait and see how a new record-sharing agreement between Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Inspector General Max Huntsman's office works out first.

The supervisors will revisit the possibility of giving the commission subpoena power in May.

The push to create a civilian panel began amid revelations of widespread abuses in the county jails and has gained new currency as national attention has been focused on police use of force and relationships between law enforcement and minority communities last year.

Mark-Anthony Johnson, an activist with the group Dignity and Power Now, which led the push by community groups for a civilian commission, praised the progress made over the last three years but slammed the decision to allow former law enforcement officials on the panel.

“No matter what, this is a historical moment,” he said ahead of the vote. “This is a victory, but it's a complicated one.”

The supervisors will take another vote to make their approval of the structure official. Ridley-Thomas said he expects the commission to be running by summer.

Twitter: @sewella

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