Helping the people keep L.A.'s sheriff in line

What is the point of creating a civilian commission to oversee the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, as reformers demand, when the sheriff is already elected directly by the people? Surely voters are smart enough at election time to oust a sheriff who isn't serving them properly.

Or, put another way, why layer on a pack of commission watchdogs who have no bite? Even though the Board of Supervisors can't remove the sheriff, it can hold him accountable by withholding department funding when he misbehaves, in much the same way Congress checks the president or the Legislature checks the governor. Shouldn't that be enough?


It should — or rather, it would, if the pieces of the county government puzzle had been assembled by Enlightenment philosophers or the Constitution's framers. Then there would be an executive with power to enforce laws, a Legislature to make law and allocate funding, and a judiciary to resolve disputes. The people's sovereignty would be protected not merely by the right to vote for their leaders but by separate and balanced branches of government.

Unfortunately, the pieces of county government were assembled with a markedly lower level of genius and foresight. The result is what Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky derided a decade ago as a "Soviet-style system," with too many people only sort of in charge and no person sufficiently at the helm to take responsibility.


Yes, Los Angeles County has, in its sheriff, an executive voted into office by the entire electorate, somewhat like a president, governor or mayor. But he has only a narrow slice of an executive's functions, heading a paramilitary force, focusing only on public safety and lacking any power over the non-safety concerns of the county and its residents. Imagine the president keeping only his role of commander in chief of the military but telling Congress to run the rest of the shop.

Checks and balances in county government simply don't function the way they do elsewhere, in part because counties operate on odds and ends left over from bygone times or dreamed up by progressive reformers. Sheriffs date back to medieval England, where they served as the king's chief enforcer in the shire — what we call a county — and that ancient local arrangement remained in place even as the United States was born and state and national governments underwent a more sophisticated constitutional makeover.

The framers didn't even want a directly elected president, relying instead on a cumbersome electoral college, so it's easy to imagine them pulling out the dueling pistols at the suggestion that a jurisdiction of 10 million people should directly elect a sheriff with no mechanism of accountability other than another election every four years. It sounds like a joke that Benjamin Franklin would tell to break the ice.

But people who work in, for or alongside county government aren't laughing. They have to make the best and most rational use of the broken and disjointed pieces at their disposal, and that will continue to be the case absent changes to the state Constitution and county charters that for now give us things like elected sheriffs.


In the meantime, though, voters — good as they may be at holding presidents, governors and mayors to account for the well-being and direction of their jurisdictions — need some organizational backup when it comes to the sheriff because his day-to-day actions aren't usually on the electorate's radar.

A voter who has no family member in jail, who has not been the victim of a crime, who is treated respectfully on the Red Line or the bus, is unlikely to know much about jail beatings and management meltdowns and may not see the need for exercising oversight at election time. That could change with a well-designed commission, meeting regularly and in public, to examine the department's performance. Congress constantly has its eyes on the president, and the City Council is always conscious of the mayor, and that attention helps voters exercise their ultimate oversight. But to the county Board of Supervisors, the sheriff is no chief executive but just one of about 40 department heads, all with their own competing needs and crises.

A civilian commission cannot substitute for more familiar checks and balances. It is, instead, a sort of patch, a workaround to infuse accountability and oversight into a system that currently fails to provide enough of either. Could the sheriff simply ignore its findings and recommendations? Perhaps, but only at his political peril. And perhaps not, under carefully crafted ordinances requiring him to appear at meetings and provide access to documents without interfering with his power to manage the department.

It's a structure that might have made the framers sigh, but it's something they might have preferred over the status quo to help the people keep their sheriff in line.

Robert Greene is a Times editorial writer.

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