'How many people are being shot?' L.A. sheriff's watchdog decries lack of transparency

A little more than two years ago, the primary watchdog over the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department laid out numerous ways the agency was failing to provide the public with basic information about how often deputies use force, the number of complaints alleging misconduct and how many deputies were being disciplined.

This week, Inspector General Max Huntsman complained that little has changed.

Huntsman said the department is moving too slowly to publish important data — such as how many citizen complaints resulted in investigations. He said he’s privately pushed the department to be more transparent and post the information online but believes he’s “getting slow-walked” by sheriff’s officials.

“In our modern, digital age, there is no reason not to have immediate information on the website accessible by anybody regarding critical information that we all want to know,” Huntsman said at Thursday’s meeting of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. “How many people are being shot? How many people is force being used against? … When people are found to have lied, do they get fired?”

In response to Huntsman’s report in 2014, the department began publishing online data about shootings by deputies, including how many officers discharged a firearm, how long the officers have served, and the race and gender of the deputies and anyone wounded or killed in the incidents. Huntsman said the department should go further and post information on any type of force, including sheriff’s dog bites and events resulting in broken bones, as well as data on complaints and discipline.

Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for Sheriff Jim McDonnell, issued a statement Friday saying the department plans to post more information but has struggled with staff shortages and “outmoded technology.”

The sheriff “is committed to transparency and providing the public with information within the law. Can we do better? Absolutely. Are we committed to doing so? We are, and we shall,” the statement said.

Huntsman’s criticism came the same day that inmates-rights advocates held a news conference to announce that an inmate at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility attempted suicide this week. They also criticized the department for not informing the public about such critical incidents without being asked. After activists raised questions about the incident, a department spokeswoman released a statement saying a male inmate at Twin Towers had been discovered early Wednesday with a piece of clothing wrapped around his neck, but the man survived and was treated at a hospital.

Dignity and Power Now, a group that advocates for prisoners and their families, held a protest last month over the deaths of four inmates within nine days in the L.A. County jail system, which is run by the Sheriff’s Department. The department confirmed the deaths — labeling one a suicide — only after the group had raised public concerns.

“There is a continued and ongoing crisis of medical negligence inside of the county jail system,” Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now said at Thursday’s news conference before the monthly Civilian Oversight Commission meeting.

Johnson said the Sheriff’s Department’s failure to notify families of inmates as well as the public about jail incidents before being asked raises questions about whether the agency is underreporting suicides and other critical events. He renewed a call that several advocates have made for the civilian oversight panel to be granted subpoena power rather than rely on the Sheriff’s Department for its information.

“This commission needs the power to independently compel information from a department that is not producing it at the cost of our loved ones’ lives,” he said.

A federal monitor is keeping track of how well the department is preventing suicides in its jails as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, reached in 2015, to alleviate unsafe conditions in the jails. Nishida, the sheriff’s spokeswoman, said the agency has made significant improvements, including more frequent safety checks, de-escalation training for guards and better handling of inmates with mental health issues.

Huntsman implored the newly formed oversight commission — a panel of nine civilians that hosts open forums on department practices and can advise the agency — to pressure the department to immediately put into place his previous recommendations for improving transparency. He wants the department to provide up-to-date details on its website about serious uses of force, including how many deputies were involved in each incident and their years of service, as well as the types of employees who are the subject of complaints from the public and the outcomes of internal investigations.

His 2014 report found the department lagged behind other major law enforcement agencies, such as the Los Angeles and the New York police departments, when it came to sharing data with the public.

Since then, Huntsman said members of the department have told him privately they’re committed to posting information beyond the data on shootings by deputies.

“I’ve sat next to the sheriff looking him in the eye telling him how serious this is, and I’ve got nothing,” he said.

The department said its staff is compiling all force data going back to 2013 and is working to make sure that publishing the information would not violate state laws that protect officers’ privacy rights. “We will continue to strive to be a leader in law enforcement, not only in crime metrics, but also in our ability to be a transparent organization,” the agency’s statement said.

The union that represents rank-and-file deputies has previously pushed back against the department publishing information about whether deputies were found to have violated policy in shootings, prompting sheriff’s officials to remove that data from its site, KPCC reported last year.

Huntsman said the department should also post its quarterly discipline reports, which outline how many officers are being disciplined for what reasons. Those reports were published under the prior administration by the Office of Independent Review, a group that oversaw the agency’s internal discipline until 2014, and included short narratives describing alleged deputy misconduct.

Huntsman says providing the public with generalized data that does not identify individuals is permissible under state officer confidentiality laws.

“I am just shocked that this information on the aggregate isn’t public,” J.P. Harris, a commissioner and retired sheriff’s lieutenant, said after hearing Huntsman’s comments. “That’s crazy.”

maya.lau@latimes.com

For more news about the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, follow me on Twitter at @mayalau

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