The citizens panel appointed by Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block to examine his department in the wake of deeply troubling allegations is quickly losing any appearance of independence and thus any claim to credibility.
The panel has decided to allow Block to attend every session. The sheriff certainly should attend some meetings, but his presence at every one could stifle investigation by discouraging witnesses, including deputies, from being candid about problems within the 8,000-member department.
With the panel meeting behind closed doors, the sheriff is in and the public is out. This ban certainly won’t ease public concern about serious charges against the Sheriff’s Department that include allegations of unnecessary shootings, money skimming and the existence of a white supremacist gang.
Public hearings, at the very least, would let witnesses reflect a diversity of opinion on how the department is performing. The panel’s co-leaders, attorney Gloria Allred and educator Julian Nava, favor open hearings, but the panel is divided on allowing public input on a very public concern--public safety.
The question, as Allred rightly puts it, is “whether the presence of the sheriff could affect the ability . . . to have a free and open discussion.”
The successful Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department was funded independently of and operated independently of both the mayor and the police chief. The Christopher Commission, as it became known, used an independent staff, expert witnesses, police witnesses and public hearings to substantiate patterns of racism, sexism and excessive use of force in the LAPD.
If the sheriff’s committee is to be at all credible, it must have similar independence and make its hearings open to the public.