Editorial: Transparency is also a Sheriff’s Department duty
First, the bad news, as laid out in a report by Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman and reported Friday in The Times: The Sheriff’s Department does a poor job of informing the public about shootings and discipline. That would be a big deal in any event, but especially at this moment in history, when law enforcement agencies nationwide are coming under renewed scrutiny, and properly so, for use of deadly force and poor access to data about it.
Huntsman’s findings aren’t particularly surprising, of course. The basic narrative of the Sheriff’s Department over the last five years has been a succession of jail beatings by deputies and, when the public asks questions, such hostile and arrogant responses as to strain even the best relationships the department has with the communities it serves.
But his analysis was particularly useful in that it compared the department with its law enforcement counterparts in California — including the California Highway Patrol, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department — and the largest police departments elsewhere in the country.
Almost everybody does better at making data on the use of force, complaints and discipline easily accessible to the public, either directly or through independent review boards. Even New York City, with its long history of tension between the department and the public, displays data about police shootings on its website: how many, where, against whom.
Some jurisdictions go further. Dallas, for example, posts it all on an Officer Involved Shooting Web page. What do we really want to know? Whom did the police shoot? Was the victim armed or unarmed? Of what race, gender and age? In what neighborhood? It’s all there, in one place — as it should be.
And so should it be on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department website, up to date, quick to find, easy to read. It should include descriptions of the investigative and disciplinary status of each incident. Who was cleared? Who got fired?
The approach in the county has been very different for very long. State laws require certain data disclosures, and the Sheriff’s Department has complied, but only in response to specific requests. The attitude has too often been that the department should release as little information to the public as possible, the aim being to thwart criticism and to keep any data that could be used in an excessive-force lawsuit from would-be plaintiffs.
And, in fact, there are more opportunities for such lawsuits against the department than for many of its counterparts around the nation. That’s because the department runs a jail system in addition to patrolling the streets, so there is more potential for abusive encounters. In fact, it is jailhouse beatings, not street arrests, that became the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s sorry calling card over the last several years. Information about force exerted by deputies on patrol — or rather, lack of such information — is another problem.
The county does have a legitimate interest in protecting itself and the taxpayers against huge lawsuit settlements and verdicts. But that’s not its only interest. It also has an interest — a moral duty — to keep the public informed about the misconduct or proper conduct of the people it arms and to whom it grants authority to arrest, to shoot and, when necessary, to kill. That tension should be resolved in favor of oversight and disclosure.
So that’s the bad news. There is good news as well.
The last several months have brought enormous change to the Los Angeles County government in the form of newly elected supervisors, a newly elected and reform-minded sheriff, a commitment to create a civilian oversight panel for the department, the creation of the Office of Inspector General and the appointment of Huntsman to lead it. There is a narrow ray of sunshine leaking from a crack in the county’s wall around itself. There’s an opportunity to break open that wall. Sheriff Jim McDonnell has vowed to share more information with the public. His goal should be to move the department from releasing the bare minimum it can get away with to presenting the maximum data the law allows.
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