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Now the Sheriff Is on the Spot : But Block’s remarks offer hope that the department will respond wisely

With yet another controversial fatal shooting this week by one of its deputies, there’s no doubt that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has deep problems. The inevitable comparisons to the troubles of the Los Angeles Police Department have again arisen. But there’s one marked, and welcome, contrast: the response of the man at the top.

Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates had to be dragged toward reform; Sheriff ShermanBlock is demonstrating a more open approach that is commendable.

During his monthly open house with reporters this week, Block was refreshingly candid about how the image of his department has been sullied by the behavior and attitude of some deputies. There have been deputies who are “dishonest, bigoted,” he acknowledged. “We’ve had people in this department who have been brutal. In the future I’m sure we’ll have people who will be brutal . . . but I think the larger question is not that these incidents occur but what is the organizational response? How do we deal with these people who are, in fact, engaged in misconduct?”

The department has been shaken by a series of controversies in recent years, including a string of excessive-force lawsuits and a drug-money skimming scheme that has landed seven deputies in prison. In the last month, three fatal shootings by deputies--in East Los Angeles, Ladera Heights and, this week, in Artesia--have intensified demands that the County Board of Supervisors and Block get to the bottom of all that’s wrong in the department.

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Block, who was at first reluctant to publicly address the rising concerns, has now agreed to participate next month in a public hearing with the county board. Block is expected to hear much criticism about his 8,000-member department; he has suggested he will counter what he considers to be unfair criticism, as well as respond to the fair and legitimate worries of county residents.

Some speculate that the recent shootings and the still vivid memory of the LAPD beating of Rodney King are behind Block’s willingness to be flexible. Others say that Block, although not relishing more public scrutiny, always has favored a non-"cowboy” approach to law enforcement and has sought to avoid a siege mentality.

Frankly, Block’s motive for choosing a more open approach now really doesn’t matter. It’s what is needed. The message from the top is crucial. Block must continue, in word and deed, to demonstrate unequivocally that deputies will either operate within the law and department procedure or they will be gone.


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