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Follow-Up as a Tool for Reform

The Kolts Commission and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are conducting their sometimes tense relationship in the manner of mature adults. That is both refreshing and commendable. There is much at stake.

The Kolts panel was created by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors amid increasing criticism of the Sheriff’s Department. The supervisors were wise to have done that: In July, 1992, they got a thorough report about what was wrong with the department and how it might be fixed. The Kolts report echoed the valuable work the Christopher Commission had done in analyzing problems in the Los Angeles Police Department.

One key difference between the two efforts, however, was that the Christopher recommendations did not include a formal mechanism for periodic follow-up review. The Kolts recommendations did. They provided for semiannual reviews by the panel’s staff, headed by special counsel Merrick Bobb.

Another helpful difference was that Sheriff Sherman Block, the department’s elected head, did not fight the panel every inch of the way but instead accepted its central premise that the department could and must be improved. Block has chosen to work with the panel rather than resist it.

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Even so, the relationship has not always been harmonious, and it is clear from reading between the lines of the recently released second semiannual report that a lot more work needs to be done. Naturally, some reforms had to be kept on hold because of budgetary considerations. But others that could have moved forward haven’t gotten anywhere (for example, working to reduce the time that deputies are stuck in mind-numbing jailhouse assignments, moving more quickly to investigate sheriff’s stations that become trouble spots and dealing with command officers who still escape accountability by laying blame on those lower in rank). And the evaluating panel expresses concern about instances when the department was slow to produce needed information.

All that said, the promising part of this process is that on balance the Kolts panel remains enthusiastic about its relationship with the department and optimistic about the future. Sheriff Block, the report notes, has agreed to accept an outside ombudsman to review citizen complaints and, if needed, to let a panel of judges review certain complaints.

“Unlike other police departments,” the new report says, “the personnel in the LASD are not divided into a host of mutually antagonistic camps. Some of the brightest and most moral and decent individuals we have come across work in the . . . department. Our disagreements . . . may be as vigorous as ever, but we have increasing comfort that our relationship with the department is characterized by mutual respect, good faith, and a common set of goals.”

That sounds like a sensible formula for success.

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