Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to set up a civilian oversight commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department, marking a major milestone for the troubled law enforcement agency.
Advocates of the move have long called for such a panel to oversee a department that has been beset in recent years by allegations of widespread abuses in the jails.
A divided board voted down a similar proposal in August, with then-Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky casting the swing vote against the proposal.
But with Yaroslavsky termed out of office last week, his successor, Sheila Kuehl, voted with the 3-2 majority in favor of the civilian oversight panel.
Kuehl, along with supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis, said a civilian commission would help monitor and restore public trust in the department. They said the move is particularly important in light of the growing national controversy about police practices stemming from incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. Ridley-Thomas said there should be a "clear signal from the largest county in the nation with respect to reform."
Kuehl said the commission will provide a needed public forum to air issues in the department before crises develop.
"The public really doesn't feel that they knew – or knew in time – what was going on," she said.
Advocates praised the decision to create a civilian oversight body.
"This is a historic moment," said Kim McGill, organizer of the Youth Justice Coalition. She asked members of the audience 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 and the people that buried our family members when they've been killed by the sheriffs."
Patrisse Cullors, founder of Dignity and Power Now, which has advocated for a civilian commission for the last two years, said the commission needs to be "legally empowered, community centered and independent." The commission should have subpoena power and should oversee the inspector general, she said.
Advocates also said they do not want the commission to include any current or former law enforcement officials.
Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe voted against creating the civilian oversight commission. Antonovich said creating a separate oversight body would be "a step backwards" from efforts to focus on setting up an office of inspector general as a watchdog for the department.
Richard Drooyan, an attorney who oversaw implementation of reforms proposed by a panel that studied the issue of jail violence, argued that a new civilian commission would "dilute" the supervisors' ability to influence the Sheriff's Department. He said the most effective means of oversight would be a strong inspector general reporting to the board.
Inspector General Max Huntsman did not give an opinion on whether the board should create a new civilian commission, but said his office is still having problems getting access to documents from the Sheriff's Department. Without full access, he said, "I do not think this will succeed."
Key details of how the panel will operate remain to be worked out. Over the coming weeks, a panel of county attorneys and representatives of the sheriff, inspector general and supervisors will recommend a structure for the new commission, as well as what powers it would be granted.
Representatives of the deputies' union said they want to ensure that their members have a representative on the panel that will figure out the powers and structure of the commission.
New Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who inherited a department facing a likely federal consent decree over poor conditions for mentally ill jail inmates, has also voiced support for civilian oversight.
The sheriff was out of town Tuesday, but said in a statement that civilian oversight "can provide an invaluable forum for transparency and accountability, while also restoring and rebuilding the community's trust."
McDonnell also offered some preliminary recommendations for structuring the commission. They include: The panel should be made up of seven to nine members, appointed by the board and other community or law enforcement representatives; the members should be appointed for a set term and removable only for cause; the commission should oversee the work of the inspector general.