Three recent shootings of unarmed men by Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies underscore the need for a civilian oversight commission — and the Board of Supervisors' unfathomable delay in getting that panel up and running.
Donnell Thompson was shot to death on July 28 in Compton as deputies responded to a carjacking in which Thompson was not involved. William Bowers, a homeless man, was shot to death in Castaic on Aug. 2. A man suspected of vandalism was shot, although not fatally, while hiding in a shower in Lennox on Aug. 7.
Shootings by sheriff's deputies have declined in the last year but these three, in rapid succession, necessarily renew concerns over the training of deputies and their fitness for jobs that require the highest level of discretion, expertise and presence of mind. The sheriff's department is conducting internal investigations, the district attorney's response team rolled out and the inspector general is doing his own probe, and each of them has a distinct and appropriate role.
But none of them report to the public about what went wrong and what must change. Does the Sheriff's Department hire trigger-happy deputies? Is its tactical training lacking? Did these deputies do everything right? Does the Sheriff's Department disproportionately target African Americans?
Sheriff's officials have acknowledged that Thompson was not the carjacking suspect, so we are eager to hear the sheriff's explanation for why deputies killed an unarmed man who was not involved in the crime.
The missing link is an oversight commission, somewhat parallel to the Los Angeles Police Commission.
A commission, operating properly, provides a measure of independence from the sheriff, whose findings are made and whose disciplinary decisions are imposed away from public view; and from the Board of Supervisors, whose meetings with the inspector general are likewise private. A commission provides direction and guidance to the inspector general. It provides the public a view into the process and a forum at which to raise concerns. It provides an opportunity to question the sheriff who, although an elected official, otherwise has no regular or formal interaction with the public. It provides scrutiny of sheriff policies and of the adequacy of sheriff discipline.
The Board of Supervisors agreed in late 2014 to create a civilian oversight commission, and a panel spent months last year studying the commission's proper role and composition. The board gave its final approval in January, and most supervisors have chosen their appointees, although without yet revealing the names.
But there is still no commission. Supervisors claim that the appointments will be finalized and the commission will get underway any day now — but they have been making that claim for half a year. Supervisors, get on with it. Unleash the commission. Let it get to work.