Before an empowered sheriff's oversight commission, an influential one

Before an empowered sheriff's oversight commission, an influential one
Karla Vargas, a fifth-grader and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the LAPD, tells the Los Angeles Police Commission what she witnessed at a MacArthur Park rally in this 2007 photo. Also pictured are Richard Tefank, Chief William J. Bratton, Andre Birotte Jr., and Shelley Freeman. The commission is seen by many as a model for oversight of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. (Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors can set up a citizens’ oversight commission that's meant to keep tabs on the sheriff, but it can’t imbue that commission with any power that the board itself doesn't already have. The sheriff is an independently elected official, with powers established by the state Constitution. The board has no legal power to compel him to appear, testify, turn over documents, answer questions; so any oversight commission the board appoints would similarly lack that authority.

Such a commission would therefore be inherently different from the city of Los Angeles Police Commission, the panel often named as the appropriate model for sheriff oversight. The city commission actually heads the LAPD and has an essential role in the mayor’s selection of a chief. It conducts weekly sessions which the police chief skips at his peril, and the chief or his staff must answer commissioners' questions, usually in public although sometimes in closed session.

The commission has its own staff, including an inspector general who is independent from the chain of command. The commission is in some sense the eyes and ears of the mayor, who appoints the members as well as the chief. But because it holds its sessions regularly and mostly in public, and because the chief must appear, present documents, and answer questions as demanded, the commission is also the eyes and ears of the public.

And because the chief knows that in reporting to the mayor, the commissioners have a loud voice in determining whether the chief gets appointed to a second term, the body’s oversight of the Police Department is genuine.

No sheriff’s oversight commission could have any such voice in a second, third or any term for an independently elected sheriff, at least not under current law, and it could only request, not demand, that the sheriff appear and produce documents. How, then, could it exercise genuine oversight?

In a Jan. 28 op-ed headlined, “To reform the Sheriff’s Dept., look to the LAPD,” UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and former Citizens Commission on Jail Violence Executive Director Miriam Aroni Krinsky acknowledged the differences but argued that “there are still significant benefits” to creating such a panel.

Raphael Sonenshein, an expert on Los Angeles and California government and the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., suggests that the Board of Supervisors might be able to create an “influential” board – one with power to focus attention, even if it lacks formal authority to compel action.

“It’s a design problem,” Sonenshein says, underscoring the importance of selecting the proper appointing authority, checks and balances.

On its own, the Board of Supervisors can push forward with reforms, as it did with some recommendations offered over the last two decades in 33 substantive reports on the Sheriff’s Department by Special Counsel Merrick Bobb; or it can ignore them, as it did with many others. The task is to make the commission more than just the eyes and ears of the board; like the Police Commission, it must be the eyes and ears of the public.

Because it lacks the Police Commission’s formal power, it must be adept at using moral suasion and focusing public attention; and to do that it must have the credibility of a body that transcends the Board of Supervisors and is not merely the board's proxies.

Each county supervisor could still appoint a member, but those appointees should be balanced by appointments by others: The district attorney and the public defender, for example, or the presiding judge of the Superior Court. It should be an odd number to avoid perpetual deadlocks. It should be limited to nine members; any larger would be unwieldy; much smaller would leave us merely with proxies for the Board of Supervisors.

Reform activist Patrisse Cullors, executive director of Dignity and Power Now and organizer of the Coalition to End Violence in L.A. Jails, has led a series of town halls across the county, engaging members of the public in a conversation about oversight. Discussions have included direct public appointment – or election – of oversight board members.

One appointment might come from those cities that contract with the sheriff for law enforcement. Such a commission might end up bearing at least some resemblance to the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which includes the five supervisors, four appointments from the city of L.A. and others from other cities. The Metro board can be unwieldy, but it has its merits.

Each member should be appointed for a single set term, perhaps five years, similar to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, with terms staggered. Such a commission is more likely to exercise independent judgment while remaining focused and responsible.

To prevent members from becoming mere proxies for those who appointed them, members could not be removed, except for cause, and only by a super majority vote of the entire commission (or, in the alternative, by super majority vote of the appointing powers).

The inspector general would report to the commission instead of to the Board of Supervisors. The commission’s tasks would be set forth by ordinance: Conduct regular open meetings at which the inspector general reports, request that the sheriff appear in public and answer questions.

The sheriff would still be, on paper, answerable only to the public. But the public would now have a regular forum, even during those times when the attention of the Board of Supervisors is distracted by crises in other departments.

A commission with influence would not be the same as one with formal authority. But it could go a long way to reestablishing public confidence in the Sheriff’s Department. And it could well be a precursor – a necessary one – to a commission empowered by a vote of the people that changes the county charter, and if necessary the state Constitution, to modify the independence and unaccountability of the sheriff.

This is the third in a continuing series on establishing a citizens commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department. Read the first post here and the second here.