Supervisors clear way for watchdog to have more access to deputies' records

Los Angeles County supervisors approved an agreement that will give a watchdog over the Sheriff's Department access to more internal records on deputies' use of force and allegations of misconduct.

The agreement between Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Inspector General Max Huntsman will allow Huntsman to see personnel records that are normally kept confidential. But his access will be limited.

The sheriff has already signed the deal. The Board of Supervisors' unanimous vote Tuesday authorizes Huntsman to do so.

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Deputies have argued against having the records of discipline and internal investigations released while jail reform advocates said the agreement is just a first step toward transparency.

Huntsman and the sheriff negotiated the pact for months, but the issue gained increased currency after controversy exploded around deputies' fatal shooting of an armed man in Lynwood over the weekend. 

The agreement will allow Huntsman and his staff to view records from personnel files, but not to make copies of them. And it says that the inspector general should request "only those records and that portion of the record deemed necessary to [his] purpose."

He would not be allowed to share or publish confidential information, including the names of deputies who are investigated or disciplined. State law protects that information from being publicly released under most circumstances. But Huntsman said he will use the confidential information to produce reports on broader trends.

"If I look at a series of shootings, and I see a trend that is troubling, I absolutely have an obligation to pass that along" to the supervisors and to a yet-to-be-appointed civilian oversight commission, he said.

Huntsman described the agreement as a "significant step forward in the direction of transparency and open policing."

McDonnell called it a "historic moment." The agreement, he said, "will bring enhanced accountability at a time when too many law enforcement and community relationships are going through some very stressful times."

Advocates who have been pushing for increased oversight of the Sheriff's Department praised the agreement, but said it did not go far enough.

Mark-Anthony Johnson, an activist with the group Dignity and Power now, said the agreement is "actually really critical." But he objected to the deal positioning the inspector general as the "sole broker of information, particularly sensitive information" to a future civilian commission. 

"I think that's going to create some issues in terms of credibility, in terms of transparency, in terms of what issues are actually prioritized by the inspector general's office," he said.

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On the other hand, the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, sent a letter to supervisors describing the agreement as "a broadly worded and vague document that permits the sheriff, without judicial oversight, or any oversight, to turn over, at his sole discretion, confidential information concerning law enforcement officers."

The group expressed particular concern that deputies would not be notified when their personnel files are turned over to the inspector general.

The record-sharing agreement is a precursor to finalizing the setup of a civilian oversight commission for the Sheriff's Department. The supervisors voted to create such a body a year ago, but have not finalized the structure or appointed its members. The supervisors are expected to take up the final steps toward doing so next month.

Twitter: @sewella

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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