An attorney who helped investigate allegations of brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department was hired Friday to assist in an inquiry into the Sheriff's Department--a probe that has already prompted Sheriff Sherman Block to suspend a similar investigation by his own citizens panel.
Retired Superior Court Judge James Kolts, named by county supervisors as special counsel to investigate the Sheriff's Department, hired Merrick Bobb as staff counsel to help review excessive-force allegations and other complaints against sheriff's deputies.
Bobb was a deputy general counsel on the Christopher Commission staff that investigated the Police Department in the aftermath of the beating of Rodney G. King last March.
Bobb's former supervisor on the commission said the attorney's handling of excessive-force issues for the commission was "at the heart" of its report.
"Merrick was a very central player in the work of the commission staff," said John W. Spiegel, who was the commission's general counsel, "and I'm delighted with his appointment. I think he will be a terrific help for the judge and the supervisors."
The 45-year-old Bobb, meanwhile, said he enters the investigation with "no firm impressions" of the Sheriff's Department.
"I have learned from my experience on the Christopher Commission to have a great deal of respect and admiration for the difficulty of police work and for the difficult conditions that face policemen and policewomen," he said.
" . . . I also have . . . a tremendous amount of respect for the power that the police have. The ability to carry a gun, the ability to use a baton, are powerful weapons. With the responsibility that the police have comes the responsibility to use those tools responsibly."
Bobb's appointment came as Block moved to curtail the work of his own citizens panel, which he had appointed last September to review his department and advise him of reforms.
Block had appointed the committee after a boisterous Board of Supervisors' hearing on allegations that sheriff's deputies use excessive force, especially against poor, inner-city minorities.
But in a letter to committee members Jan. 3, Block asked them to postpone their investigation until Kolts completed his inquiry July 15 because the judge's investigation "will be significantly duplicative of what I had requested your committee to assist me with.
"In addition, it will be impossible for me to devote the necessary time and attention to both this effort and yours and still carry on with my day-to-day responsibilities," wrote Block, suggesting that the committee reconvene later to review Kolts' findings and help implement any recommendations.
A spokesman for Block said the sheriff would not comment on the letter until he discusses it privately with the panel Monday. Gloria Allred, a co-chair of the panel, said that she and the other chair, Julian Nava, will present Block with an alternative plan, but she declined to elaborate.
"I don't take this as fait accompli, " Allred said of Block's letter. "I take this as a proposal. I think the group has a right to have a full discussion with the sheriff to discuss what other options may exist, if any. . . . "
Nava said he was disappointed with Block's decision but that he was reassured that it made good administrative sense. "I think some committee members feel that (the sheriff) was just scuttling his committee, but he fervently and plainly told me that is not the case," Nava said.
The board had hired Kolts after the panel was criticized for lacking independence and the supervisors were denied an opportunity to make appointments to the panel. In naming Kolts, the board asked the judge to investigate ways to reduce the lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department that have cost taxpayers almost $32 million over the last four years.
Kolts also has been asked to review Sheriff's Department policies dealing with the use of excessive force, including handling of citizen complaints, training and discipline of deputies.
Kolts said that his next task will be to begin reviewing brutality cases for the last five years, and he said Block has "assured me of his cooperation."
Bobb, who is with the law firm Tuttle and Taylor, will be paid $200 an hour as staff counsel. A director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles from 1983 to 1991, Bobb was president of the board in 1989-90. He is co-chairman of the Legal Services for the Poor Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.
Sheriff's spokesman Capt. Douglas McClure said, "We're confident that we will be able to work with Judge Kolts, Merrick Bobb and the rest of their staff."
Kolts, who will be paid $450 a day, said he plans to hire more staff, possibly an accountant, an educator and a pyschologist, and seek volunteers from the legal community. Kolts said he plans to conduct public hearings on sheriff's operations.
Kolts and Bobb said they had no opinion on Block's plan to suspend meetings of his citizens' panel.