Crime & Justice

LA supervisors debate composition of new sheriff watchdog panel

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors considers how best to watchdog the Sheriff's Department Tuesday.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors considers how best to watchdog the Sheriff's Department Tuesday.
Photo by greg lilly via Flickr Creative Commons

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Amid many efforts to reform the troubled Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday will discuss who should sit on a newly created Civilian Oversight Commission.

One key point of debate is whether former deputies will serve on the nine-member panel, all to be appointed by the board.

While a group of supervisors believes ex-cops could provide a valuable perspective on the panel, the idea has irked the activists who originally organized for civilian oversight.

“Fundamentally, we don’t think law enforcement should be policing law enforcement,” said Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now, a group that formed to protest deputy-on-inmate violence in the jails and pushed for the new commission. 

“It doesn’t make sense,” Johnson said. “The community needs to know that they can go to a place where the people they are talking to have not been entrenched in a practice of law enforcement – one that protects law enforcement.”

But L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and the powerful Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs argue excluding former deputies from eligibility would be unfair and also exclude people who know the inner workings of the department.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis agree — and have introduced a motion that would allow former deputies to serve on the commission after a one-year period away from the department. They argue an ex-cop’s perspective could be valuable on a panel charged with looking for problems at the Sheriff’s Department.

“There is no question that it could have a lot of value depending on who the person is,” said Ridley-Thomas. He points to the late Jesse Brewer, a former LAPD assistant chief who became a strong voice for reform on the city’s civilian police commission in the 1990s.

“In my view he was one of the best commissioners to ever serve,” said Ridley-Thomas.

Johnson agrees that former officers can be valuable, citing ex-Sheriff’s Commander Bob Olmsted. He was one of the few sheriff’s officials to testify about problems at the department at the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

But Johnson said people like Olmsted should serve as advisors to a civilian commission, not voting members.

“I think it would damage the credibility of the commission,” he said.

Over the past two years, a federal grand jury has indicted more than two dozen former sheriff’s officials on corruptions and civil rights charges. Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka is scheduled for trial next month on charges he obstructed an FBI investigation into brutality at the jails.

The scandal has provoked other changes. The Board of Supervisors created a new Office of Inspector General to monitor the department and hired former prosecutor Max Huntsman to head the office. The IG will report to the civilian panel, once its created.

In addition to composition, the board on Tuesday is expected to ask the IG to report back in 60 days on whether the sheriff is adhering to a memorandum of agreement that allows the IG’s office access to a wide range of department records, including personnel files.  If not, the board will consider placing on the November ballot a measure giving the civilian panel subpoena power to obtain records.

It’s unclear when the commission will begin its work. The board first voted to establish it more than a year ago. The motion on Tuesday says county officials should develop a plan for staffing the panel and launching it “with a status report by March 14.”