Crime & Justice

LA supervisors to vote on civilian oversight of sheriff

The current seal of Los Angeles County, California, e.g.
The current seal of Los Angeles County, California, e.g. "L.A. County seal", adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in September 2004.
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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected Tuesday to take the long awaited step of creating a civilian commission to act as a watchdog for the sheriff’s department. 

The idea of a citizen’s panel arose three years ago amid a federal investigation into inmate abuse inside LA County jails. That investigation led to the indictment of more than 20 deputies and the abrupt resignation of former Sheriff Lee Baca.

There’s been years of wrangling over who should sit on the panel and what powers it should have. Sheriff Jim McDonnell and the union that represents deputies successfully convinced the board of supervisors to keep it as an advisory panel - without legal powers to subpoena sheriff’s documents.

Nonetheless the creation of the panel is historic – never has the county had a citizen’s panel to oversee the independently-elected Sheriff.

Those nominated to sit on the panel include former prosecutors, former defense attorneys, clergy, community activists and a former cop. The list includes:

Activists unsuccessfully argued no former police office should sit on the panel.

“This is a wide mix of people,” said Inspector General Max Huntsman, who will work with the commission to look at issues at the sheriff’s department. “I think it will be powerful because of the people on it.”

If approved, the nine-member panel will work with Huntsman to examine issues ranging from use of force to how the sheriff deals with the mentally ill. Supporters say it could be a powerful bully pulpit in an era when there is increasing concern over policing.

The creation of the panel, after so many years, gave activists hope of new oversight of the sheriff.

“I’m excited about that,” said Mark Anthony Johnson, of Dignity and Power Now. He said he was encouraged by the appointment of activists to the board, but remained frustrated the panel would have no legal powers.

He indicated he would watch and see what happens what the panel begins its work.

“We are not interested in window dressing,” he said.