It is time to seriously consider a civilian oversight board for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider such a proposal next week. If approved, it could be a big step toward remedying some of the ongoing problems in our county jails.
The last few years have been tough for the department, which has been plagued by jail scandals, committee inquiries and even a federal investigation. Despite the efforts of committed professionals within and outside the department to monitor abuses in the jail system, the problems have continued. Meanwhile, the public has only been invited into the process once the situation has reached crisis dimensions.
A citizen oversight board has the advantage of providing a constant outsider view of the operations of the Sheriff's Department, very much in the same way that the Los Angeles Police Commission monitors the Los Angeles Police Department. Rather than gearing up to deal with the next inevitable crisis, the Board of Supervisors should focus on what monitoring will be the most effective in preventing scandals in the first place.
For years, I have taught law students about our county jail system. We seem to be caught in an endless loop of crises. It begins with revelations of problems in the jails and the board's criticisms of the sheriff. Then follows a promise of reforms, but these reforms do not include any mechanism for the public to monitor their implementation or efficacy. The next the public hears of the jails is another round of criticism and another set of reform pledges.
The Board of Supervisors is in the process of selecting an inspector general for the Sheriff's Department. It is hoped that individual will have the expertise to investigate allegations of improper conduct by the department. But this will not break the cycle. Rather, for public confidence to be fully restored, there must be civilian overseers who will not only react to allegations of misconduct but also be proactive in making reforms. And such a board must have the power to ensure that its members' voices will truly be heard.
Allocating this responsibility to the supervisors alone, or even to the supervisors and an inspector general, does not take into account what makes citizen panels so special. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville once said: "The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through."
For those concerned about what will happen next in the supervision of the Sheriff's Department, the current system smacks a bit too much of democracy without real input from the citizenry. Certainly, a citizen can complain to her supervisor about the jails and even suggest a change or two. However, what citizens cannot currently do is engage in discussions of what causes abuse and problems and, more important, what should be done about them.
There are 10 million reasons civilian oversight should play a role in reforming the Sheriff's Department and our jails — the 10 million residents of Los Angeles County. Appointed by the Board of Supervisors, a panel of civilians could give regular, informed feedback to the supervisors regarding any ongoing problems in the jails and regarding the public's perception of the effectiveness of the work of the new inspector general. Integrating residents' concerns into the decision-making process would not displace the authority of the supervisors or the sheriff. Rather, it would create a partnership in the effort to reform our jails. Such a partnership is what has been lacking in prior efforts to monitor and change the department.
Opponents of a civilian oversight board have argued that the Board of Supervisors alone, or now in conjunction with a newly created inspector general office, is sufficient. However, neither entity brings to the table the direct voice of the community, one not filtered through a political process or limited to a lengthy fact-finding role. If legislation is needed to define the role and responsibilities of a civilian oversight board, then the supervisors should push for such legislation. However, the public should not be left again with empty promises of change. Professional monitoring by an inspector general is important, but so are the voices of the people.
Laurie L. Levenson is a professor of law at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor.