In the coming days, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will take up the question of whether to establish a citizens commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department. That would be an important reform, and the board should move ahead with it. But some supervisors have expressed reluctance, and Inspector General Max Huntsman and Sheriff John L. Scott have advised the board to delay any action until after Huntsman's office is fully staffed and laws laying out the scope of his duties are in place.
This is not a completely irrational stance; The Times argued 10 months ago that the board should focus first on the inspector general before considering whether to also establish a commission.
Since that time, though, the need for a commission has become more obvious as news of mismanagement and criminal behavior in the department has highlighted the need for regular scrutiny and discussion in a public forum. Also, in creating the IG position, the supervisors withheld two vital features: a set term of office and protection from being fired without good cause.
It is now clear that the board should set up the commission right away, even as it completes the build-out of the inspector general's office. To do otherwise — to determine the inspector general's scope of access to internal sheriff's department documents and to decide whether the IG will have something tantamount to an attorney-client relationship with the sheriff, the board or the county — would be senseless without first knowing whether the IG will report to an oversight body. A commission would become an afterthought to an inspector general who already would have established protocols and privileges. Those properly should be hammered out in cooperation with the commission.
The board should make it clear now that it will establish a citizens oversight commission to work in tandem with the inspector general, with both parts and the Board of Supervisors being interlinked gears in an integrated oversight mechanism.
A five-member commission that conducts weekly or bimonthly public hearings with the sheriff in attendance could provide a level of focus that the board itself, with all its other duties, could not. That's the chief strength of the motion that Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has put before the board.
But such a panel, with one member appointed by each county supervisor, would inevitably become a mere proxy for the board and therefore be less of a step toward effective and independent oversight than is needed. Consider, for example, the county's 55-year-old Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections, the 10-member panel (two appointees from each supervisor with no limit on tenure) that is charged with monitoring conditions at county jails. Largely because members must please their appointing supervisors or risk being removed, the Sybil Brand Commission has played a less than significant role in spurring changes in the treatment of mentally ill inmates and the abuse of inmates and visitors by sheriff's deputies; those changes are currently in the works because of pressure from elsewhere.
The citizens oversight commission should instead have nine members, with five board appointees supplemented by four either picked by the first five from a pool of names assembled, perhaps, by Superior Court judges or mayors from the county's contract cities in consultation with community advocates, or directly appointed by authorities outside the ambit of either the sheriff or the Board of Supervisors.
Members should serve staggered, non-renewable terms, much like the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. They should be exempt from removal — and therefore from political pressure — by the appointing authority or anyone else absent a showing of good cause. The number of appointees, the diversity of the appointing authorities and restrictions on tenure and removal would allow the commission to operate with necessary independence without becoming a runaway jury. It would keep commissioners from being either puppets or persecutors.
The commission, rather than the supervisors, should direct the work of the inspector general. It should be empowered and given resources to hire and direct its own staff.
It might look similar to, but would not be parallel to, the Los Angeles Police Commission. It would not be the head of the Sheriff's Department. It would have no role in determining the sheriff's tenure. It would have no role in imposing deputy discipline — unless the sheriff, at his option, asked its advice.
But it would provide a regular public forum for aggrieved and interested members of the public to state their concerns, and for the sheriff to report on progress and address criticism. It could investigate use of force and discipline issues; question the sheriff on policy decisions; foster community relations. Although the Board of Supervisors could not delegate to it any formal authority over the sheriff that the board itself lacks, as a practical matter it would have time that the board does not have to focus on sheriff oversight. And, crucially, it would have an important measure of independence from the political arena that the board does not have, and thus would be less susceptible to a popular sheriff's political push-back.
It should have access to the jails and other facilities, as well as departmental documents. To the extent that laws and the state Constitution allow the sheriff discretion over whether to comply with such requests, disputes would be played out in the forum in which the sheriff operates — the forum of public opinion.
The Sheriff's Department is struggling through a chaotic period of scandal and dysfunction, but voters are soon to elect a new leader, plus two new members of the Board of Supervisors. This summer provides the board a rare opportunity to reinvent the relationship between the sheriff and the people he serves. It should embrace it by creating a comprehensive system of oversight, with an inspector general's office shaped together with a credible citizens commission.