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Editorial: Appoint the sheriff? Remove the sheriff? L.A. County needs to start asking questions

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas wants his colleagues to ask for alternative ways to select and remove a sheriff.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas wants his colleagues to ask for alternative ways to select and remove a sheriff.
(Los Angeles Times)

It was disappointing but not particularly surprising last month when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided not to explore how to make the sheriff more accountable to the people he is elected to serve. The board put that debate off until Tuesday.

That’s nothing new. For nearly 30 years, the supervisors have delayed action and wrung their hands over sheriffs whose deputies’ actions were responsible for hundreds of millions of tax dollars being paid out in verdicts and settlements stemming from excessive force and other misconduct.

That historic unwillingness to push for strong, meaningful oversight over county law enforcement is easy to forget, given the board’s high-profile feud with Sheriff Alex Villanueva over the last two years. The current supervisors have repeatedly taken the sheriff to task for irresponsible actions and statements, and have taken a few substantive moves, such as removing him as head of county emergency operations. The board has also whittled away sheriff powers such as control over medical services in the jails, and it has exercised its prerogatives over the sheriff’s budget.

But getting the board to consider fundamental structural change has been like pulling teeth. It was that way in 1992, when the Kolts Commission examined deputies’ excessive use of force and called for a civilian oversight body to help fix the problem. The supervisors said no, caving in to pressure from then-Sheriff Sherman Block and the deputies union.

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It took 20 years before two supervisors — Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina — urged the board to create an oversight body. And still the board said no, until new supervisors were elected who finally said yes.

Even then, some on the board fretted that an oversight commission couldn’t really work because the sheriff is elected and therefore reports to no one but voters. How could a commission that couldn’t fire the sheriff change his behavior?

But that question misses the point. The Civilian Oversight Commission has become a forum where concern and complaints about the sheriff can finally be heard in public. It’s easy to dismiss the commission’s call last month for Villanueva to resign as an example of its members’ powerlessness, given that the sheriff has of course ignored them. But the discussion provided the valuable service of spotlighting the problems with the current sheriff — as well as the structural flaw inherent in having a chief law enforcement officer who is not meaningfully responsible to any civilian authority for the four years between elections.

Before urging the board to launch the oversight commission, Ridley-Thomas pushed the supervisors to create an office of inspector general. Since then, following the lead of community organizers and activists, he steered the board toward giving both the inspector general and the commission power to compel the sheriff and his subordinates to turn over documents and answer questions under oath.

Court rulings and elections may ultimately determine whether those long-overdue changes constitute sufficient civilian oversight, but in the meantime, it’s important to ask: What else can we do to keep the county’s paramilitary power accountable to the people it is supposed to serve? What action would be needed to allow the commission or the Board of Supervisors to remove the sheriff? Should the office be appointed rather than elected? What would be the consequences?

Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl brought these and other questions before the board on Oct. 27 but were met with skepticism, to say the least, from their colleagues. Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who is married to a retired sheriff’s deputy, said in essence that the sheriff is elected and that’s the end of it.

Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl want simply to ask the questions and to seek answers from county lawyers and staff. What would it take to change how we select and remove sheriffs? What would be the consequences?

When the board takes up the delayed motion on Tuesday, let’s hope the supervisors can stop wringing their hands long enough to ask the questions. Ridley-Thomas will have been termed out by the time the answers come back in a month, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether his replacement and the remaining supervisors will let 30 more years pass before further substantive actions are taken to make the L.A. County sheriff truly responsive to the people.


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