Crime & Justice

Organizing group split on subpoena power for LA Sheriff oversight

Steve Rogers of the activist group Dignity and Power Now argues the new civilian oversight panel at the LA Sheriff's Department should have subpoena power.
Steve Rogers of the activist group Dignity and Power Now argues the new civilian oversight panel at the LA Sheriff's Department should have subpoena power.
Frank Stoltze

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There’s a sharp debate underway over whether a new civilian oversight panel should have subpoena power over the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. One key figure believes such power is necessary to give the panel teeth.

“Its certainly a club should you ever need it,” said Dean Hansell, who chairs the working group which is designing the new oversight panel.

Subpoena power would give the panel the ability to force reluctant Sheriff’s officials to testify before it and to obtain certain documents. It would not give the panel access to personnel records – that would require a change in state law.

Hansell is no stranger to law enforcement oversight. The attorney once served as chairman of the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD. He acknowledged that giving subpoena power to the sheriff's oversight panel would require a change in the LA County charter.

“But I think it’s absolutely appropriate we ask for one,” said Hansell, who spoke Friday after a meeting of the group. He said subpoena power would supplement a proposed memorandum of understanding that would give the panel access to the department. The panel was created in December by the Board of Supervisors.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell remains reluctant to support subpoena power, according to interim Undersheriff Neal Tyler. He said change already is underway at the department, which is under federal investigation for civil rights abuses and corruption. There’s no need for “the hammer” of subpoena power after the election of McDonnell, said Tyler, who also sits on the working group.

“We have a hammer right now and its Sheriff Jim McDonnell,” the undersheriff said. He also noted McDonnell is providing Inspector General Max Huntsman broad access to the department.

“We are working so cooperatively with him now that it’s not necessary to codify it,” Tyler said. Huntsman has said he needs still more access to adequately oversee the department, and that subpoena power would help.

A representative from the labor union that represents Sheriff’s deputies also sits on the seven member group designing the oversight panel. He said he’ll oppose any effort to give it subpoena power.

“There are a lot of deputies concerned about privacy,” said Les Robbins, executive director of the Association for Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs.

Critics of the Sheriff’s Department continue to lobby for subpoena power for the new oversight panel. More than three dozen showed up at the meeting.

“If there is something that the sheriff's department wants to keep hidden, those are the things we want to find out,” said Steve Rogers of Dignity and Power Now.

The working group is expected to make its recommendations to the Board of Supervisors in May.