The untouchable sheriff?
There came a point during the 2012 hearings of the Los Angeles County Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence when the panel’s lead counsel, Richard Drooyan, asked Sheriff Lee Baca how he was to be held to answer for mistreatment of inmates, poor supervision of his jail deputies and in fact everything that goes wrong at the Sheriff’s Department.
“Don’t elect me,” Baca answered.
In that simple statement the sheriff put his finger on the sharpest theoretical check on his considerable power, yet paradoxically his most effective shield against ever actually being held to account to anyone for his performance. As the sheriff, he answers to the voters of his county — and to virtually no one else.
Yet most voters don’t track the sheriff except in the most general sense, and they seldom are faced with a capable and viable alternative on election day. By being accountable to everyone, the sheriff is in a real sense accountable to no one.
And sometimes the sheriff can thwart even the voters’ attempt to rein him in. In 2002, when Los Angeles County voters adopted term limits — a maximum of three four-year terms for every county elected official — Baca went to court, arguing correctly that sheriffs’ terms are set by the state Constitution and that county voters are powerless to limit him in any way other than selecting a different candidate on election day. He prevailed; the term limits measure now applies to Los Angeles County supervisors but not the sheriff (or the district attorney or assessor).
It’s an odd system. The sheriff leads a paramilitary agency of uniformed law enforcement officers with the authority to arrest and use deadly force. But unlike his city counterparts — police chiefs who must report to mayors, city councils or oversight commissions, and sometimes all three — the sheriff labors under no real oversight at all. He wears a badge but is, in fact, a politician. He need never appear at a Board of Supervisors hearing or send the supervisors a report unless he deems it in his interest to do so. The board’s formal power over him covers only his budget; yet the board must govern the county and pay its bills, including millions of dollars in liabilities racked up by deputies who wrongfully injure people, whether by driving while intoxicated or beating up inmates or many misdeeds in between.
That structure of an independently elected sheriff has been at the heart of the board’s quandary in the wake of the jail violence revelations and the investigation, hearings and scathing report by the commission, as well as the civil damage awards against jail supervisors and, now, the federal indictment and arrest of 18 deputies on charges that include obstruction of justice.
If the board can’t order the sheriff to do (or not do) anything, what’s the use of appointing someone to investigate problems in his department and report on them to the board?
Unlike the structure of the Los Angeles Police Department, where the mayor can fire the chief, and where an inspector general has the power to subpoena witnesses, compel production of documents and report directly to the Police Commission — which at least on paper is the head of the department and has the authority to recommend against a second term for the chief — layers of ersatz oversight at the Sheriff’s Department rely on the sheriff’s cooperation. The various authorities report to no one with power to discipline or remove the sheriff.
One of Baca’s predecessors agreed to an in-house ombudsman to take public complaints, but amid years of reports about abuses by jail guards and patrol deputies, the ombudsman was barely a factor in bringing problems to light. An Office of Independent Review reports to the board on the Sheriff’s Department and other agencies, but its scope is limited to critiquing the department’s own investigations of alleged officer misconduct. It is dependent on the sheriff’s cooperation.
The Board of Supervisors hired a consultant to write periodic reports on the Sheriff’s Department’s performance and to recommend improvements in policies and procedures. That has been helpful in illuminating problems in the department, but the consultant can only recommend. It’s up to the sheriff to implement — or not.
Now, following a recommendation by the jail violence commission, the board has appointed prosecutor Max Huntsman to the new post of inspector general to provide independent oversight and monitoring of the department. But the comparison to the LAPD’s inspector general is only partly apt; Huntsman, like the previously assigned layers of oversight, will report to the Board of Supervisors, which will have no power to remove the sheriff or to recommend discipline to anyone.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina are calling for yet another layer: a commission to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, roughly parallel to the Police Commission atop the LAPD. But, again, the parallel is imperfect: The Police Commission is part of a carefully structured complex of civilian oversight, engrafted into the City Charter, that balances various powers but ultimately puts the police chief under the authority of the mayor and commission. A sheriff’s commission could have no real oversight beyond that which the independently elected sheriff is willing to surrender.
Just as with term limits, the sheriff is shielded by the state Constitution from oversight. Los Angeles voters should seriously consider asking their fellow Californians to join them in amending that document to provide a more effective check on the sheriff’s power.
In the meantime, though, the Board of Supervisors should recall that it appointed the jail violence commission, and although that panel had no actual authority to discipline or remove the sheriff, it was far from ineffectual. It provided a forum and a focus for critique of the sheriff and his department, and its recommendations form the basis of a revamp of the department’s operations. That’s a signal that a more permanent oversight commission might well have a constructive role, even if its powers don’t parallel the Police Commission’s.
As Huntsman begins his work, the supervisors must decide whether he is to report to them along with the dozens of other counsels and department directors who compete for the board’s attention; or instead to a commission that, without disciplinary authority, could nevertheless have the power to scrutinize the sheriff’s performance and direct him toward constructive change.
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