It was no surprise last week when Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman recommended against renewing contracts with two agencies monitoring the Sheriff's Department. The same citizens commission that called for the creation of Huntsman's office also suggested that it absorb the functions of those other agencies, one of them established 22 years ago to report on excessive force and lax discipline, the other created nine years later to monitor the sheriff's handling of deputy misconduct allegations.
One lesson arising from the commission's hearings was that the county's existing oversight and reporting agencies were insufficient to end a pattern of abuse in the jails; the implication was that a differently constructed and empowered office would be better suited to the task.
That lesson and that implication could stand some scrutiny. Without it, the county could find itself with new titles and offices but the same problems it failed to solve a decade ago and a decade before that.
Just why, for example, were the special counsel and the Office of Independent Review inadequate? The citizens commission noted that both did their investigations and reports but both met with a "lack of meaningful or timely action" by the Sheriff's Department. And why did the department not respond? Because it didn't have to. Criticism and critiques were filed by both monitors with the Board of Supervisors, which too often failed to use the political power at its disposal to develop sufficient public pressure to get the sheriff to act.
The inspector general serves at the pleasure of the Board of Supervisors and will report directly to it. This is not the kind of muscular oversight and dramatic change set forth in the recommendations of the citizens commission, which called for an inspector general whose independence would be bolstered by an appointment to a set term and who could be removed only on a showing of good cause.
These details of governance and reporting relationships may seem picky and wonky, but they can be the difference between effective oversight and reports that go unread, or unwritten. An effective structure requires oversight that cannot be co-opted by the sheriff or ignored by the board.
Of course, it also matters who has the job, and Huntsman is a smart and accomplished prosecutor who, to his credit, has promised to provide opportunities for public input. And the board is, so far, providing funding for more personnel than it did the other oversight agencies.