L.A. County interim sheriff urges delay for civilian oversight panel

L.A. County interim sheriff urges delay for civilian oversight panel
Interim L.A. County Sheriff John Scott wants to delay creation of a civilian oversight commission for the Sheriff's Department until the inspector general's office is up and running. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The question of whether to appoint a civilian oversight commission for the troubled Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department should be postponed until the new inspector general's office is up and running, Interim Sheriff John Scott has recommended.

In a letter Tuesday to the county Board of Supervisors, which was co-signed by Inspector General Max Huntsman, Scott expressed some skepticism about civilian oversight, cautioning that there must be "safeguards against overzealous review."


In deferring the question, Scott and Huntsman cited ongoing negotiations about how much access the inspector general would have to investigate the department's inner workings.

Huntsman has hired six people and is hoping for a staff of about two dozen. He said he was still waiting for a county ordinance that would define the office's duties and its budget.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who supports a civilian oversight commission, said in a statement that he was both "disappointed and disturbed" by the recommended delay. He cited Tuesday's guilty verdicts in the trial of six sheriff's officials accused of obstructing a federal investigation into brutality in the county jails.

The board may still disregard the recommendation and move forward with creating a commission.

"The Sheriff's Department cannot police itself. That truth is not going to change with the passage of more weeks or more months; it is not going to change even with the advent of a new Sheriff," Ridley-Thomas said. "That's because the problems of the agency are not of the making of one person or even a handful of rogue deputies, rather they are systemic."

Huntsman's appointment by the board last November represented a major shift in oversight of the Sheriff's Department. Previously, an Office of Independent Review monitored internal discipline, and a special counsel employed by the Board of Supervisors issued regular reports.

A civilian oversight commission would work with the Office of the Inspector General to police the department, which has seen federal criminal charges against 21 employees. Last month, a Department of Justice report described a dramatic increase in jail suicides.

Sheriff Lee Baca abruptly resigned in January, and Scott is serving as interim sheriff until a runoff election between Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell and retired undersheriff Paul Tanaka is decided on Nov. 4.

"How to set something up that will be effective at, day to day, convincing the police department to behave in a way you consider most effective? It's a very complex question," said Huntsman, a former supervisor in the district attorney's public corruption division.

Buddy Goldman, chief of the Sheriff's Department's South Patrol Division, helped shape the recommendation. He said that designing a citizens' commission without first establishing the inspector general would be a recipe for disaster.

"Whenever you rush into these kinds of things, they universally fail," Goldman said. "You don't build two processes, where you're trying to build the same thing at the same time, leading to neither process getting the time and facilities to get off to a good start."

Patrisse Cullors, founder of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails and a strong advocate for citizen oversight, said she feared a delay could stretch for years, leaving a commission that would be "like the stepchild of oversight."