County Sheriff Jim McDonnell envisions unpaid civilian oversight panel

Sheriff Jim McDonnell, pictured the day after his election, says he'll consider publicly releasing use-of-force reports and department audits.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Four days into his job, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell offered new details about the type of civilian oversight he would like to see for the department and the need to restore public trust in the embattled agency.

McDonnell told The Times’ editorial board on Friday that a civilian oversight commission should be composed of seven to nine members who are unpaid, “pillars of the community” and “not looking at this as employment.” He said the panel should include more than just one person appointed by each of the county’s five supervisors.

McDonnell said he wanted to give as much access to the department’s inspector general as legally possible and would consider publicly releasing use-of-force reports and agency audits.


“I want to provide as much as I can within the law, but I want to make sure I’m comfortable with the law before providing anything,” McDonnell said.

The new sheriff’s comments came days before the county Board of Supervisors is expected to reconsider creating a civilian commission over the department. The sheriff would probably have a seat on the panel that would hash out the details of such a commission’s structure and powers.

By state law, the commission would merely be advisory and would not have legal authority over the elected sheriff. But McDonnell said he would address any serious problem uncovered by the commission.

“I’d much rather us be made aware of it at that level and be able to fix something early, rather than let it go longer and end up dealing with a scandal or something that could have been fixed at a much earlier stage with less damage,” he said.

The inspector general should report to the oversight commission, rather than to the county Board of Supervisors, so that the commission would not need its own investigative arm, McDonnell said Friday. He would prefer that the inspector general not have subpoena power, because that would create an adversarial relationship between the watchdog office and the Sheriff’s Department, he said.

McDonnell, a veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who was Long Beach police chief for more than four years, is the first sheriff in a century to be elected from outside the department, which has been demoralized by scandals including brutality against jail inmates and the hiring of unqualified applicants. The U.S. Department of Justice is moving forward with a consent decree governing the treatment of mentally ill inmates in the jails.


The Sheriff’s Department generally has good relationships with the communities it polices, McDonnell said. But he pointed to parts of the county — Compton, South Los Angeles, Lancaster and Palmdale — where poverty and crime are issues and residents and law enforcement do not get along as well.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice accused sheriff’s deputies in the Antelope Valley of engaging in racially biased policing, including unlawful searches of homes, improper detentions and unreasonable force against African Americans who received low-income subsidized housing.

McDonnell said he would hold town hall meetings around the county. Sheriff’s deputies can often build trust by explaining the reasons behind their actions, he said.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said earlier this week that his officers violated department policy when they fatally shot an unarmed man after a high-speed chase last year. On Friday, McDonnell said some police shootings in Long Beach had violated policy, but he declined to say which ones, citing officers’ right to privacy in disciplinary matters. He said he would consult with county counsel to determine whether he could release similar information about shootings by sheriff’s deputies.

McDonnell said he also would need to study the role of a former Sheriff’s Department watchdog, the Office of Independent Review, before deciding whether to give the inspector general similar access to disciplinary investigations.