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Activists propose civilian oversight panel for Sheriff's Department

How to best oversee L.A. County Sheriff's Department? Activists propose a panel of civilians

Advocates hoping to influence the ongoing discussion about how to best oversee Los Angeles County's troubled Sheriff's Department are presenting county leaders with a proposed blueprint for a new nine-member civilian oversight commission that would serve as an independent conduit for public complaints about the agency.

For months, the county's Board of Supervisors has been debating whether to create a new panel to monitor the world's largest sheriff's department in the wake of a federal investigation into alleged misconduct by deputies in the county jails. Activists and some elected officials argue that such civilian oversight is the best way to ensure needed reforms are implemented.

But a majority of the county's elected supervisors has been reluctant to set up a panel, in part because its powers to investigate, obtain documents and examine complaints would be limited under state law, which assigns control over the department to the elected sheriff.

The county board recently asked interim Sheriff John Scott and the department's new inspector general, Max Huntsman, to assess whether such a commission should be created and how it should be structured.

Ahead of that report, the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, an organization of activists, asked a group of UCLA law students to study similar civilian oversight panels and draft their own proposal.

The group's report, to be released publicly Monday, calls for a civilian oversight board similar to the city of Los Angeles' Police Commission. The Sheriff's Department panel would have the power to hire and fire the inspector general, serve as a forum to discuss inspector general reports and operate a 24-hour hotline for misconduct complaints.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has been the board's main proponent of a civilian oversight commission, praised the law students' work but stopped short of supporting the proposal to put the inspector general under the control of a civilian monitoring group.

"I'm not sure if the board is willing to do that, nor am I sure it's advisable," he said. "But I'm willing to keep an open mind."

Samuel Paz, a civil rights attorney whom the law students consulted with in preparing the report, said civilian oversight of the department is "a good idea and one that's a couple of generations past its time."

Miriam Krinsky, former executive director of a county board-appointed panel that studied violence in the county jails, said members of the proposed commission would be "singularly focused" on Sheriff's Department issues and should assume oversight duties for the inspector general's office.

"The [Board of Supervisors] is responsible for a tremendous amount, and it's difficult for it to carve out the time to remain constantly engaged in these issues," she said.

The coalition against jail violence said five members of the civilian panel should be appointed by the supervisors, two appointed by local criminal justice officials and two chosen from a slate proposed by local community organizations. The commission members would serve five-year terms and be subject to removal only "for cause."

A series of community hearings should be held on the proposal, the group said, and a final structure of the oversight panel decided after the election of a new sheriff in November.

Brian Buchner, president of the National Assn. for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, who reviewed the report, said most of the recommendations appear to be in line with the workings of other police oversight bodies, although giving community groups a direct role in appointing members would be unusual.

The coalition's proposal focused more heavily on excessive-force investigations. Oversight panels elsewhere also frequently deal with allegations of racial profiling and lawsuits by officers over workplace issues, he said.

Still, Buchner said, the proposal "does a good job of moving the discussion forward.… It gives people something concrete to debate."

Inspector General Huntsman, who has reviewed the coalition proposal, called it "very detailed and very helpful." But he added that it is premature to comment on specific recommendations because he and the sheriff are still preparing their own report.

"I think that kind of independent community involvement, and I say independent with a capital I, is critical," Huntsman said.

Sheriff's officials did not respond to a request for comment.

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