Editorial

L.A. sheriff's overseer should be independent and focus on disclosure and accountability

The oversight commission could become a useful tool for good sheriff-community relations

Los Angeles County supervisors took a welcome and long-overdue step Tuesday in agreeing to establish a citizens' oversight commission for the Sheriff's Department. Now the serious questions begin. Will this new body remain a creature of the Board of Supervisors, or will it be granted some independence? Will it oversee the work of the department's inspector general, or instead will it work in cooperation — or competition — with that office? Will it have power to subpoena documents? What sway will it hold over the actions of the sheriff, who will continue to report directly to voters and will, at least on paper, be accountable only to them? Can oversight be accomplished by a body that is merely advisory? 

The answers to these and other questions are fundamental to the proper operation of the commission, which could become a useful tool for good sheriff-community relations and for transparency and accountability. Or, if the panel is put together with too little care, it could become another sedimentary layer of bureaucracy that consumes resources but offers little in return.

There are plenty of examples from which to draw. San Diego County, like Los Angeles, has an independently elected sheriff and an oversight commission. So do other municipalities around the nation. L.A. County, by its sheer size, is very different from other jurisdictions, and its commission will not be exactly like any other, but still there will be lessons to learn from them.

It may be useful to keep in mind the example of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who earlier this year canvassed cities and counties to learn how they divert mentally ill arrestees from jail to more suitable clinical treatment facilities. Lacey's multidisciplinary task force is instructive: Get everybody with interest and expertise involved, take the time to do the job right, but keep moving.

One of the threshold questions will be the degree to which the Board of Supervisors holds sway over the commission. The board, after all, is responsible for running the county and in that capacity works to limit the county's financial liability. That often means keeping the mistakes and misdeeds of county departments under wraps in order to keep from providing fodder to would-be plaintiffs.

Such a stance is understandable but is sometimes at direct odds with the transparency and disclosure that the public demands from its government and, especially, from law enforcement.

Efforts to improve oversight of the sheriff suffer from these competing demands. The Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, for example, recommended appointing an inspector general who would serve for a set term and could be removed only for cause. The board did indeed create the new office but chose to deny the new inspector general the recommended independence, making him report to the supervisors and serve at their pleasure. The board conferred attorney-client privilege so that documents that he produces are available to the public only with the board's approval.

The new oversight commission should be seen differently, not as a instrument of the board but rather as something more independent, with a focus more on disclosure and accountability than on limiting financial liability.

A five-member panel would almost certainly consist of one appointee from each of the supervisors, serving as extensions of their offices, removable by them.

That's one reason that Sheriff Jim McDonnell, the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in Los Angeles Jails and The Times editorial board support a larger panel with members other than board appointees, each with staggered terms and removable only for cause.

There are, of course, other structural attributes that would make a difference to the success or failure of the commission. We look forward to a broad, public and substantive conversation on those and other issues as county officials consider recommendations.

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