The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department lags behind other major law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, in releasing information about officer-involved shootings, complaints from the public and internal disciplinary action against officers, a report by the department’s new inspector general has found.
The sheriff’s department should post the information on its website, as other agencies do, so the public can easily review it, the report said. Along with a civilian oversight board now in the planning stages, better access to data would bring more transparency to a department that has been plagued by scandals, including brutality by deputies against inmates in the county jails.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who took office Dec. 1, said he fully supports the inspector general’s recommendations but added that it will take some time to organize the information and figure out what details can be posted without disclosing personnel information protected by state law.
Posting the data will “let the public know how we’re doing, how we’re trending over time, how we’re progressing, are we having challenges and setbacks and if so, what we’re doing about it,” he said.
In the report, Inspector General Max Huntsman alluded to ongoing national scrutiny of police shootings of unarmed civilians, which intensified with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and has led to protests around the country.
Transparency helps build public trust and reduce an “us versus them” mind-set where people view law enforcement as the enemy, Huntsman said.
“Any member of the community should be able to look it up and find out what’s going on,” Huntsman said. “If they can get real numbers immediately, instead of waiting for a report to come out in the press, they’ll have a chance to see the full picture.”
In addition to policing unincorporated parts of the county and 42 contract cities, the sheriff’s department runs the nation’s largest county jail system. Huntsman’s recommended disclosures would include tallies of violent incidents involving jail deputies and complaints lodged by inmates against jail staff.
Compared with eight other policing agencies, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was ranked lowest, with a rating of “poor,” in Huntsman’s assessment of the information available on its website.
The sheriff’s department website discloses only the bare minimum required by law, Huntsman noted. The agency provides a detailed breakdown of crime statistics but does not include information about deputy-involved shootings, employee discipline or public complaints, the report noted.
Some of that information is released to the news media upon request, but Huntsman said anyone should be able to pull it up online.
By contrast, the LAPD’s website contains Annual Use of Force Reports listing the number of officer-involved shootings, broken down by whether anyone was hit, whether the target was an animal or human and whether the discharge of the officer’s weapon was intentional. The reports state the time each shooting took place and the area where it occurred, as well as the officer’s rank and years with the department.
But only the reports for 2009 and 2010 have been posted, Huntsman noted. The website also contains the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners’ use of force findings through 2013, which provide detailed narratives of shootings and other major force incidents.
Quarterly discipline reports are also posted on the LAPD’s website. These include the number of complaints against officers, the types of allegations and the penalties imposed. Again, the information is not up to date, stopping in 2012, Huntsman’s report said.
In press releases, the LAPD routinely names officers who have shot civilians, whereas the sheriff’s department does so only in response to public records requests.
Among other agencies cited in Huntsman’s report, the Las Vegas Police Department attaches investigative reports of each officer-involved shooting along with analysis of trends. One annual Las Vegas report found that African Americans made up a disproportionately large number of people shot by police. The most significant cause, the report concluded, was officers mistaking the actions of African Americans as threatening when they were unarmed.
The Dallas Police Department’s website includes a summary of each incident, whether the suspect was carrying a weapon and the name, gender and race of the police officer, the report said.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he wants the sheriff’s department website to include everything the law allows.
“I think L.A. County has been behind the times for too long,” he said. “The more the public knows, the better off the county of Los Angeles will be.”