Jim McDonnell, the front-runner to become the next Los Angeles County sheriff, expressed strong support Thursday for a civilian oversight commission as well as “full access” to internal records for the Sheriff Department’s inspector general.
McDonnell appears to favor more transparency than Interim Sheriff John Scott, who argues that the department should have an attorney-client relationship with the inspector general to shield sensitive information from the public. Scott also has expressed some skepticism about civilian oversight, cautioning that there must be “safeguards against overzealous review.”
In the coming months, the county Board of Supervisors will design a new oversight system for the troubled department. McDonnell, who is police chief in Long Beach, will face retired Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in a Nov. 4 runoff election.
McDonnell jumped into the oversight debate with a news release calling for the supervisors to approve a civilian commission that would provide transparency and accountability while also restoring community trust in the Sheriff’s Department.
“The well-documented yet still-unfolding failure of leadership at the Sheriff’s Department, in particular, demands the creation of such a commission at this time,” McDonnell wrote.
Scott has recommended that the board hold off on creating a commission until the new inspector general’s powers are fully defined. The inspector general, Max Huntsman, concurred with Scott’s recommendation and is negotiating with Scott over how much access he will get.
McDonnell said the details of the civilian oversight commission and the inspector general’s office should be worked out at the same time.
The board is slated to vote later this month on the civilian oversight issue as well as a structure for the inspector general’s office. Under the current proposal, the inspector general would not have an attorney-client relationship with the sheriff but would have such a relationship with the board.
“These issues should be worked out in tandem … so that both entities can be part of a cohesive new civilian oversight structure,” McDonnell said.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was critical of Scott’s recommendation to postpone the civilian oversight commission, praised McDonnell’s statement.
“By enthusiastically endorsing the creation of a citizen’s oversight commission, already he is making good on a promise to usher in a new day of transparency, accountability and cooperation between the people of Los Angeles County and their Sheriff’s Department,” Ridley-Thomas said in a statement.
McDonnell received nearly 50% of the vote in a seven-candidate primary, with Tanaka a distant second at 15%. Longtime Sheriff Lee Baca stepped down in January, shortly after a hiring scandal was exposed and 18 of his deputies were charged as part of a federal jail abuse investigation.
Tanaka, a 31-year Sheriff’s Department veteran who retired amid complaints about his management style, did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week, six sheriff’s officials were convicted of obstructing the jail investigation. Federal prosecutors will retry a seventh deputy whose trial ended in a hung jury. Tanaka and the current internal investigations chief, William “Tom” Carey, are subjects of an ongoing federal investigation.
McDonnell notes that he’s had experience working with citizens commissions during his 29 years at the Los Angeles Police Department and four years as chief in Long Beach.
“It’s members of the community that are plugged into the system to be able to validate what’s being done, or to raise the issue and say they’ll see this issue differently,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a community perspective we might not otherwise have.”
Previously, an Office of Independent Review monitored internal discipline and had an attorney-client relationship with the Sheriff’s Department. A special counsel employed by the Board of Supervisors issued regular reports.
Scott said in a statement that without attorney-client privilege, his “actual ability to share information will be impaired and will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis.”
In an interview, Huntsman said his office would not be providing legal advice to the Sheriff’s Department, so attorney-client privilege would be inappropriate. State law already prevents the disclosure of law enforcement agencies’ personnel files and information that would jeopardize ongoing investigations, he said.
At a public meeting Wednesday, supervisors’ aides said the new inspector general should be an outside monitor, not an internal one. The LAPD’s inspector general operates without attorney-client privilege.
McDonnell said he would like to see a legal opinion on the attorney-client question. Generally, he said, the inspector general’s office should have “full access to [Sheriff’s Department] facilities, records and personnel, as allowed by existing law.”