In August, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors rejected the idea of a civilian commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department. That kind of panel would be an extra layer of bureaucracy, the board majority argued, and virtually powerless because the sheriff is directly elected by, and accountable to, the people.
In December, however, with two new members, the board reversed course and embraced the idea. A civilian commission is crucial, the new majority argued, in part because the electorate in the nation's most populous county cannot hope to adequately assess the sheriff's leadership without regular oversight and independent reports on his department's performance, discussed in a forum that allows public input in the sheriff's presence.
The supervisors appointed a working group to talk through how such a commission ought to be structured, and that group is now in the midst of a hearing process that has been marked by long, laborious but probably necessary wordsmithing, such as whether to use "and" or "or" in a particular clause. In an effort to be collegial, the group has avoided the toughest choices and is preparing to send the supervisors far too many alternatives from which to choose, giving them too little direction.
The problem may be a lack of consensus on a fundamental question: What is the commission's purpose? Sheriff Jim McDonnell has sent word that it should be advisory and that its appointees should be "pillars of the community" — presumably the sort of well-regarded establishment figures who are traditionally appointed to such bodies. That's just the same-old, same-old, say advocates for a "civilian review board" — one that would include people closer to the communities that have suffered the brunt of deputy abuse in the jails and on the streets, selected in consultation with local community organizations. Those advocates want a board with subpoena power.
Care is needed to ensure that the commission is independent and responsible, and its members capable of understanding both how law enforcement works and how it negatively affects the people it is supposed to serve. The commission should be capable of exposing problems in the Sheriff's Department publicly, before they fester, in a forum controlled by neither the Board of Supervisors nor the sheriff.
Nor should it be controlled by any particular faction, although working group members should keep in mind that meaningful public input — especially from the communities that have been in conflict with the department — has been the missing ingredient. Oversight by the Board of Supervisors, and complete reliance on the sheriff's self-policing, already have been tried in Los Angeles County, and have failed.