New leaders bring fresh perspectives, so there is reason to believe that Los Angeles County government will be reinvigorated by the four officials who took office earlier this month. But sometimes it's not enough to change faces and ideas; the structure of government itself needs an occasional shake-up. So it's doubly heartening that the reconstituted Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will take up the idea of a citizens commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department. The action is overdue.
Sheriffs are directly elected by county voters, affording a level of independence so great that it sometimes veers into unaccountability. That was part of the problem with former Sheriff Lee Baca, whom voters returned to office repeatedly while he presided over a department in which management breakdowns led to inmate abuse in the jails and other critical and costly problems. For years, voters had too limited a view into the department to know of its failings; the Board of Supervisors had too many other things on its plate to adequately spotlight them; and outside monitors who had access and knowledge had no public forum at which to share them.
To address that structural shortcoming, new Sheriff Jim McDonnell supports the creation of a citizens oversight commission — a panel to scrutinize the department's actions and operations and report on its findings in a public setting. A divided Board of Supervisors rejected such an idea in August but one of its new members, Hilda Solis, has joined with Mark Ridley-Thomas to reintroduce it. New Supervisor Sheila Kuehl noted numerous times on the campaign trail that she, too, is in favor.
The arguments against such a commission began and ended with the sheriff's independence. A commission can't fire him, opponents of the proposal argued, so how can it influence him?
But citizen oversight need not exactly parallel the city of L.A.'s Police Commission, which heads the LAPD and formally evaluates the performance of the police chief and formally recommends his reappointment — or his dismissal — to the mayor. A sheriff's oversight commission must be tailored to meet the particular challenge of overseeing an elected leader and his department, between elections. Such a body, if properly structured and staffed, could prevent abuses of the type the department has experienced in the recent past, but could also ensure that the department avoids the kind of closed culture and clueless tactics that have fueled tension between other law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, including in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and New York.
The Times strongly supports creating a sheriff's oversight commission and over the course of the year has outlined particular attributes we'd like to see, including the number and tenure of members, their access to sheriff's data and their relationship with other county officials, including the inspector general. Assuming the Board of Supervisors adopts the motion, we look forward to a broad, public and substantive conversation on those and other issues as county officials consider recommendations.