An independent investigation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is the only way to get a true picture of the pervasiveness of racism and brutality in the department, and the county Board of Supervisors ought to order up a new version of the Christopher Commission immediately. That's easy enough to say, but it is a far more difficult to accomplish than was the case with the LAPD.
For one thing, Sheriff Sherman Block is an elected official with far wider personal support than Police Chief Daryl Gates. The percentage of Anglo voters in the county is much greater than in the city. Also, Block's style is low-key, the opposite of Gates,' and he has learned from Gates' mistakes.
Despite his administration's dismal record, Block, like Gates, has in the past responded to criticism and community complaints of brutality by circling the wagons and defending his "soldiers." This time, however, Block has adopted a conciliatory attitude and has even said that he is open to criticism. In an unprecedented move, he submitted to the district attorney's office for possible prosecution the case of the deputies who killed Keith Hamilton, a mentally disabled man, by shooting him nine times in the back. The deputies are his sacrificial lambs in an effort to preempt an outside investigation.
He also hopes to block any independent look at his department with the appointment, by him, of an "investigating commission," announced at the Sept. 10 Board of Supervisors' special meeting. Block's panel has not yet held a meeting; it has no agenda and no funding or staff support.
But it is in his efforts to reject the substance of complaints of brutality and racism that Block shows his unwillingness to lead in cleaning up his department. He has said that those who complain about abuse by deputies are from "unincorporated areas," like East Los Angeles, and are really just venting their frustration at the lack of services from the county. He has even gone so far as to suggest that the county investigate the supervisors' field representatives to see if they are doing their job in providing services to residents. All of this is seen as a thinly veiled swipe at Gloria Molina, who is the only supervisor to openly support the call for an independent investigation and whose district includes unincorporated East Los Angeles.
But if Block really believes that Molina is alone, he is seriously underestimating the depth of indignation in the Latino and African-American communities. Those who packed the Board of Supervisors meeting on Sept. 10 represented a cross-section of our community. They were not students and activists, as officials often argue when confronted with protest. They were victims and witnesses of deputy sheriff brutality and people concerned with their families' safety from a department seemingly out of control.
Block and Supervisor Mike Antonovich tried to stack the meeting with deputies and their supporters and preempt criticism, an effort that appeared aimed at polarizing the audience along racial lines.
But this time, Chicano elected officials who were silent during the Rodney King-Daryl Gates controversy have joined African-American elected officials. They are jointly demanding an independent probe and reform of Sheriff's Department policies and practices, and an end to racism. State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), for example, called for a state investigation of the department even before Molina moved to hold the Sept. 10 hearings. In the end, Block's submission of the Hamilton case to the district attorney, and the supervisors' submission of the last four deputy-involved fatal shootings to a grand jury, are the best evidence that there is a cancer to be removed, and the best way to remove it is by an outside, independent probe. That is democracy working.