Faced with a series of scandals that have roiled the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to create a civilian oversight system to provide greater accountability for the agency.
The action is the latest in several moves aimed at restoring public trust in the department, whose officials have faced criminal charges over obstruction of justice and mistreatment of inmates in the sprawling jail system. It also marks the first major shift in policy since two new supervisors took office earlier this month.
In August, the old board rejected a proposal to create a board of citizens to monitor the Sheriff’s Department, questioning the timing and effectiveness of the move.
But the two new members, Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, declared their support for civilian oversight, citing not just problems in the Sheriff’s Department but also controversial police killings around the country that have sparked national protests.
“We can’t afford to delay any longer,” Solis said. “Across this country, public trust in the people who are charged with keeping us safe has fallen to a low.”
The precise powers of the commission will depend to a large extent on the new sheriff, Jim McDonnell, who was elected to the job last month after longtime Sheriff Lee Baca resigned in January. The sheriff is an independently elected office, so McDonnell is not obligated to take direction from the supervisors or their oversight commission.
McDonnell takes over the post under an unprecedented degree of scrutiny, including an impending federal consent decree governing mentally ill inmates. Last year, the supervisors appointed a veteran public corruption prosecutor to be the department’s inspector general.
Many of the commission’s details, including how many members it will have, the scope of its powers and its relationship to the new inspector general’s office, remain to be worked out. A panel including the sheriff and other county officials will issue recommendations within three months.
“The proof is in the pudding — what kind of civilian review board it will be, what its powers are, how it’s appointed ... remains to be seen. It has the potential to be a good thing,” said Merrick Bobb, who as a county watchdog issued critical reports about the Sheriff’s Department for 22 years.
McDonnell, who supported the creation of the civilian commission, said he will take its suggestions seriously. In his campaign for sheriff, he cast himself as a reformer from outside the department who helped the LAPD emerge from the Rampart era.
“It’s kind of a clarion call,” he said last week at a Times editorial board meeting. “If they’re calling out something that’s wrong, we have an obligation to fix it.”
In a statement released Tuesday, McDonnell emphasized the need for the commission to be independent. An ideal size would be seven to nine members, including several not appointed by county supervisors, he said, with the members unpaid and perhaps serving a set number of years.
The inspector general should report to the citizens’ commission, McDonnell said.
McDonnell has cited his experience at the LAPD working under its Police Commission, which sets agency policy, plays a major role in hiring the police chief and reviews use-of-force incidents.
“I have long believed that partnerships with our community should be embraced, not feared,” he said in the statement.
Since 1992, when a commission led by retired Judge James G. Kolts issued a 359-page report, the Sheriff’s Department has received detailed recommendations for reform and often failed to implement them.
Bobb’s semiannual reports described issues including excessive force by deputies against jail inmates and a department culture that failed to punish bad behavior. But he had no powers of enforcement, and the problems persisted.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice began monitoring the treatment of mentally ill inmates in county jails. Earlier this year, in a strongly worded letter describing a drastic increase in jail suicides, federal officials warned that a court-ordered consent decree was imminent.
The Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which issued an influential report in 2012 and counted McDonnell among its members, called for the creation of an inspector general’s office and other Sheriff’s Department reforms but did not call for civilian oversight.
The department has been implementing the reforms proposed by the jail violence commission. Major force incidents, such as deputies kicking suspects in the head or causing bone fractures, appeared to be down, with only three reported in the first nine months of this year.
Street policing has been an issue too. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice accused sheriff’s deputies in the Antelope Valley of racially biased policing, including unlawful searches of homes, improper detentions and unreasonable force against African Americans who received low-income subsidized housing.
Kuehl and Solis, who were sworn in with McDonnell on Dec. 1, joined with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to approve the citizens’ oversight board.
Los Angeles County, with the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, should send a “clear signal ... with respect to reform, openness, transparency and accountability,” Ridley-Thomas said. Kuehl said the commission will provide a needed public forum to air issues before they develop into full-blown crises.
“The public really doesn’t feel that they knew — or knew in time — what was going on,” she said.
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who with Don Knabe voted against the measure, said a separate oversight body would be a distraction from the inspector general’s work. Richard Drooyan, who oversaw implementation of the Commission on Jail Violence’s recommendations, argued that a civilian board would dilute the supervisors’ influence and that a strong inspector general’s office would be the best form of oversight.
Inspector General Max Huntsman deferred to McDonnell on the civilian oversight question but said his office is having problems getting access to internal Sheriff’s Department documents. Without full access, he said, “I do not think this will succeed.”
Advocates for civilian oversight called Tuesday’s vote a historic moment and asked that the citizens’ board have subpoena power and not include law enforcement officers among its members.
Kim McGill, organizer of the Youth Justice Coalition, asked people at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting to stand up and remind the board of the county’s oft-cited mission to take care of the most vulnerable members of the community.
“We are the people that have been in your jails,” she told the board, “and the people that buried our family members when they’ve been killed by sheriffs.”