Measure R would cement in place two improvements in L.A. County’s justice system that are so smart and so important that they’ve already been largely accomplished: It would significantly strengthen civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, and it would focus county officials on improving psychiatric care, drug treatment and other services for people who we currently send to jail.
Even though the Board of Supervisors moved ahead with versions of each of those steps last year, voter approval remains important. The ballot measure goes beyond the board’s actions in several subtle but significant ways. Also, Measure R will protect the reforms against any backsliding by future supervisors, who could easily be pressured by the union representing sheriff’s deputies or future sheriffs to soften or reverse the improvements. It deserves to be approved by voters at the polls on March 3.
The measure’s crucial advances in sheriff accountability and transparency were years in the making. In the early 1990s, at about the same time the landmark Christopher Commission recommended sweeping changes to improve oversight of the Los Angeles Police Department, the Kolts Commission called for similar Sheriff’s Department reforms. Voters adopted the LAPD oversight plan soon after the 1992 Rodney King riots. But sheriff reforms have never come before voters — until now.
The costs of this failure have been high. Lacking any kinds of checks on his substantial power, Sheriff Lee Baca soft-pedaled reports that deputies were brutally beating jail inmates without just cause. Baca later tried to scuttle a federal investigation into the misconduct, an effort that eventually landed him in prison.
Public outrage over the beatings led the Board of Supervisors to create a commission to investigate jail violence, made up of civic leaders along the lines of the Christopher and Kolts commissions. After months of hearings, the panel in 2012 issued a searing report and called for reforms, including more effective oversight — but stopped short of demanding an oversight body akin to the Los Angeles Police Commission.
The Board of Supervisors created an oversight board anyway in 2016, responding to demands by families of jail inmates and others in communities most affected by sheriff violence. But the supervisors declined to give the board the power to issue subpoenas, so for most of its existence, it hasn’t really been able to offer much in the way of actual oversight. It finds out only what the sheriff wants it to know.
The same is true of the inspector general — a position the board created in 2014 with the hope that he could foster sheriff transparency and accountability.
The supervisors recently approved subpoena power for the inspector general. That’s an important step forward, but Measure R would appropriately grant that power to the oversight commission as well, opening the department further to civilian scrutiny.
As for Measure R’s other mandate, the Board of Supervisors has already asked community advocates, academics, attorneys and others to craft a workable plan for alternatives to incarceration, including better community-based mental healthcare. Funding would come from money that was going to be spent on new jails — until the board voted last year not to move ahead with the construction projects. Reports from the Alternatives to Incarceration work group, as it is known, are due in March.
Measure R would require the Civilian Oversight Commission to build on that work by developing a comprehensive plan to redirect its public safety investments from an all-incarceration model to a more service-oriented model. The Board of Supervisors could take it under consideration but could alter or reject it altogether.
Measure R was crafted by many of the same community advocates and activists who organized in response to the jail beatings. Los Angeles County ballot initiatives that come from grass-roots organizers (as opposed to the Board of Supervisors) are rare, but this one merits support. Even though it may not be full-scale reform of the type that city of L.A. voters adopted after the Christopher Commission recommendations, it is a strong beginning.