Group to urge no current, former sheriff's employees on civilian panel

Working group recommends no current or former sheriff's officials allowed on oversight commission.

A committee set up to hammer out the details of a new civilian commission that will oversee the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department arrived at several key recommendations Friday on who should serve on the panel and how the body will get access to internal department records.

The working group will recommend that all current and former employees of the Sheriff's Department be barred from serving on the commission. The committee will also ask the Board of Supervisors to place a measure on the ballot that could give the oversight commission power to subpoena documents from the sheriff.

The recommendations are both measures that had been sought by activists who pushed the supervisors to create a civilian commission

The working group was divided 4-3 on both measures, with some current and former law enforcement officials on the commission -- including Sheriff's Department Executive Officer Neal Tyler -- opposing them.

Proponents of the ban on former Sheriff's Department employees argued it was needed in light of the criminal charges brought against high-ranking former sheriff's officials and the climate of distrust of law enforcement in certain sectors of the community. The panel will also recommend that current, but not former, members of other law enforcement agencies be excluded.

Just this week, a federal grand jury indicted former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, once the agency's second highest-ranking figure, on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges for allegedly concealing the whereabouts of a jail inmate who was working as an FBI informant.

"My personal view is I think it should be even stronger but I think this is a minimum," said former public interest attorney Hernan Vera, who proposed the exclusion on former sheriff's employees. "The reason I wrote it this way as to former members of the Sheriff's Department is those members may have actually known some of the people who are being investigated, have specific knowledge. I think that that is a direct conflict."



May 15, 7:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said described Hernan Vera as a public interest attorney. He is a former public interest attorney.


Les Robbins, executive director of the Assn. for Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs, called the exclusion "blatantly discriminatory."

"I think it's prejudiced," he said. "If Mr. Vera would like to also exclude from this list of potential applicants attorneys who make their living suing cops and firefighters and governments, I might have a compromise with you."

Others argued that members of the commission must avoid even the appearance of a conflict.

"We just have to look all around the country right now at what a powder keg we're dealing with and how important it is with this group that they have the full public confidence," said working group chair Dean Hansell, a former state and federal prosecutor.

The issue of subpoena power has been an ongoing point of contention. The county's inspector general for the Sheriff's Department, Max Huntsman, has complained that he has been unable to get access to records needed to complete his investigations. Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who supported creation of a civilian commission, has expressed reservations about the legality of releasing personnel records and other confidential documents.

"We don't know what this commission is going to be comprised of in terms of people with open minds and deep reasoning skills," Tyler said. "In a worst case, the commission could be comprised of people that the sheriff feels it would be ill-advised to have subpoena power."

The group also voted to recommend that the commission have nine members, all appointed by county supervisors -- one picked by each of the five supervisors and the remainder by a vote of the full board. Advocates had pushed for some members of the commission to be selected by community groups.

Advocates celebrated the working group's recommendation to call for a vote on subpoena power and to exclude former sheriff's employees.

"I think it's kind of a new day as far as what's going on in Los Angeles County," said Steve Rogers, an activist with the advocacy group Dignity and Power Now.

The supervisors voted in December to create a civilian oversight panel for the Sheriff's Department, in the wake of a series of scandals and federal investigations into the agency, which operates the nation's largest local jail system. They tasked a working group with recommending how it should be structured. 

The group's final report is expected in June.

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.

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