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Voters in 2020 will weigh new oversight of Sheriff's Department

Voters in 2020 will weigh new oversight of Sheriff's Department
Voters in 2020 will decide whether to give greater authority to the civilian panel overseeing the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday. Above, deputies at a hospital lockdown in Downey last month. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

A ballot initiative aimed at reforming the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department by granting more authority to a civilian oversight commission will go to voters in 2020, the Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday.

The organizers behind the grass-roots initiative obtained more than 240,000 signatures from local voters in an effort to increase transparency and accountability at the department, which has faced scrutiny over misconduct by deputies.

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Their plan would give the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission authority to issue subpoenas to the department when investigating allegations and a mandate to study ways to reduce the number of inmates in jails and alternatives to incarceration.

The group had hoped that the board would enact their initiative as an ordinance, given the number of signatures. But the supervisors, aware of internal county concerns about its effect, referred it to voters in the statewide election scheduled for March 3, 2020.

“We’re super excited because democracy is in action,” said Jasmyne Cannick, campaign director and lead strategist of the effort, known as Reform L.A. Jails. “The fact that the voters are going to get to vote on this in 2020 doesn’t scare us at all.”

Before the unanimous vote moving the issue to the 2020 ballot, the supervisors received a report from the county counsel raising concerns about the plan’s effectiveness and potential costs.

The report said the proposed new powers by the commission could cause conflicts if the commission were to subpoena records considered confidential by the Sheriff’s Department.

“The [oversight commission] will likely encounter significant obstacles if it tries to subpoena either peace officer personnel files or documents related to ongoing criminal investigation,” according to the counsel’s report.

It also raised concerns about the costs from the oversight sought by the initiative.

The group, which raised $2 million during the effort, began collecting signatures in March, submitting more than 240,000 to the county this summer. The county clerk’s office certified the signatures, prompting Tuesday action by the board.

Supporters and organizers received endorsements from community and religious leaders and some celebrities, including singer John Legend and actresses Jane Fonda and Alyssa Milano.

Before their vote, the supervisors heard from numerous speakers, who raised concerns about a variety of issues confronting the department, including deputy-involved shootings, deaths in jails and racial profiling.

They said the desire to reform the local criminal justice system was reaching a diverse group of county residents and would continue to build as the vote approaches.

“I am a 45-year-old white suburban woman who drives a minivan, and this movement has reached me,” Megan Dobkin, a local television producer and writer who spoke during the meeting.

The vote came on the same day the oversight commission offered several recommendations to the board for improving the department’s communication and interaction with the families of people who die in its custody. The board is expected to act on the recommendations in the coming months.

Only one supervisor, Chair Sheila Kuehl, addressed the audience before the vote.

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“I understand the hope that went into this initiative,” she said. “I personally think it should go in front of the voters.”

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