The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is in much the same place as the LAPD was a decade and a half ago. Suspects suffer unwarranted beatings and abuse under the watch of approving, or at least uncaring, top brass. Mutual antagonism colors the relationship between deputies and many of the communities they serve. Taxpayer money that could be spent on more amenities for the county's 10 million residents goes instead to settle civil-rights and use-of-force lawsuits.
City voters began the process of reforming the Police Department in 1992 when they did away with the chief's virtual lifetime lock on his job and, importantly, gave stronger and more meaningful oversight to the civilian Police Commission. They also created the Office of Inspector General, to ferret out problems in the department and bring them to the attention of the commission, not merely the chief or the mayor.
Still, there remained a certain sluggishness in the move toward reform until the Rampart scandal brought a consent decree and federal court oversight, a new police chief embraced reform and, over time, much of the old guard of officers was replaced by recruits whose training and leadership were geared toward professional, community-based and constitutional policing.
The sheriff is an elected official without term limits or a civilian oversight commission who therefore enjoys much of the unaccountability that the police chief once did. That unchecked autonomy is now coming home to roost: In the months ahead, county residents can expect to see consent decrees and court settlements that resemble the restrictions imposed on the LAPD in the past. The new sheriff and county supervisors, when they take office in December, will have to deal with the costs and headaches of monitoring made necessary by the lack of effective oversight and accountability.
The missing ingredient so far is a civilian commission to serve as the eyes and ears of the public. Monitors who merely advise the sheriff or the supervisors haven't gotten the job done — a fact driven home by continuing brutality in the jails and mismanagement of the kind identified by the county's Kolts Commission in 1992, the same year reform in earnest began at the LAPD.
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider a motion to commit to establishing such an oversight commission while allowing continued study of its structure, its purview and its relationship with the inspector general. It's the responsible step to put the county securely on the path toward lasting reform.
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