Next month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will consider whether to create a permanent citizen review board to oversee the embattled Sheriff’s Department. It’s a tempting idea, given that the department is plagued by allegations of inmate abuse by deputies and is the subject of a federal civil rights probe into the treatment of mentally ill inmates as well as a criminal investigation into the use of excessive force. But the supervisors should resist the temptation. Now is not the right moment to undertake such a plan.
First, they should focus on setting up an office of inspector general for the Sheriff’s Department, as recommended last year by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, a task force the supervisors themselves created. An independent and empowered inspector general could provide the kind of muscular oversight that is needed to help reform the department. But instead of moving swiftly to fill such a post, the supervisors have dawdled and squabbled over how to proceed.
The fact is, there are already a number of people and offices overseeing the Sheriff’s Department, but they lack authority. The supervisors have a special counsel who has repeatedly issued reports but who does not have the power to force a discussion. There’s an Office of Independent Review, but it too often serves as an advisor to the sheriff. And the ombudsman, created to handle citizens’ complaints, fails to regularly perform that job. The jails commission noted that too often the Sheriff’s Department has only “paid lip-service to those oversight bodies.” The proposed inspector general’s office would consolidate the functions of those other offices.
No doubt, some of the supervisors will argue that any watchdog agency will have only limited influence over Sheriff Lee Baca because he is a directly elected official. It’s true that it is the voters, not the supervisors or any other overseer, who ultimately decide whether Baca stays or goes. But a strong inspector general, whose office is adequately funded and staffed, could have a profound impact on the sheriff by maintaining a public spotlight on the problems in his office.
A citizen review board might not be a bad idea at some point. But what is needed right now is meaningful oversight, not another layer of toothless review.