Editorial: No, the sheriff oversight board is not just advisory. Not anymore

Residents attend a meeting of the L.A. County Civilian Oversight Commission
Residents attend a 2019 meeting of the L.A. County Civilian Oversight Commission in East Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

Sheriff Alex Villanueva is quick to assert that the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission is “just advisory,” by which he means the nine-member body has no power over the department he leads or the way he leads it. The previous sheriff, Jim McDonnell, contended much the same thing: He said the commission should be a group of civic-minded leaders who help the sheriff keep open lines of communication with his constituents.

Perhaps the commission is indeed “advisory,” in a manner of speaking. Last October, it advised Villanueva that he was doing a poor job and should resign. Lacking power to fire the sheriff — unlike, say, the power the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners holds over the LAPD chief — the commission couldn’t compel him to heed its advice. And, of course, he didn’t.

But that’s hardly the end of the matter. When it created the commission, the Board of Supervisors made a point of putting the word “oversight” in the title, unlike the numerous other L.A. County commissions that have neither power nor purpose. There was an advisory commission that ostensibly (but not really) “oversaw” the county’s chief probation officer, and it offered plenty of sound advice. But the Probation Commission couldn’t get even the supervisors to listen, and eventually even the supervisors saw the flaw in the arrangement. So they disbanded the panel and created the Probation Oversight Commission — note the additional word in the title, which purportedly signals that this group has actual clout. It remains to be seen whether the panel (which began meeting last month) will live up to its billing.


So, is the sheriff commission more like the new probation commission or the old one? It has “oversight” in its name, but more to the point, it has not been acting like it’s just a bunch of civic elites slinging advice. Together with L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman, it is probing department conduct and policy, and that’s exactly what residents want — as they made clear just over a year ago when they passed Measure R, giving the commission legally enforceable power to subpoena documents and require the sheriff to testify. For good measure, state lawmakers last year explicitly authorized each county to create sheriff oversight (not advisory) boards with subpoena power.

Oversight of L.A. County’s current sheriff is badly needed. Villanueva has undermined higher standards of deputy conduct that were put in place following the inmate-beating scandal of a decade ago and has resisted other reforms. If, like the LAPD chief, the sheriff were an appointed position — which it really ought to be — he could be more easily removed instead of merely being asked to resign. In the meantime, though, the Civilian Oversight Commission has been a crucial check on his power. It deserves recognition — and encouragement to press further.