Crime & Justice

New sheriff’s oversight commission called ‘game changer’

Sheriff Jim McDonnell at a Board of Supervisors meeting.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell at a Board of Supervisors meeting.
Rina Palta

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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted unanimously to create a nine-member civilian oversight commission that would examine problems at the sheriff’s department.

Creation of the panel follows a scandal that led to the federal indictment of more than 20 deputies for jail beatings and other misconduct. It’s the first time the sheriff will have a civilian oversight body.

“This commission is going to be a game changer,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said.

The new panel will have no legal authority over the independently elected sheriff and no access to department records. Instead, it will use the county’s Office of Inspector General to conduct inquiries. The Inspector General is allowed to examine all documents under a memorandum of understanding with the sheriff.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who ran for office as a reform candidate in 2014 after the abrupt resignation of former Sheriff Lee Baca, welcomed the creation of the panel.

“We will be stronger and more effective, and be viewed with greater trust when we welcome outside eyes,” he told reporters. The commission will bring another layer of accountability, “much needed outside expertise and a different point of view.”

McDonnell has staunchly opposed giving the new oversight panel subpoena power to demand records and interviews with his department's personnel. The sheriff has said he wants his relationship to the panel to be a partnership – and that subpoena power, which requires a countywide vote, would make it more adversarial.

That means the panel will lack the “legal teeth” it needs to watchdog the sheriff, said Mark Anthony Johnson of the community activist group Dignity and Power Now. He also lamented the appointment of a former sheriff’s lieutenant to the panel.

Nonetheless, Johnson called the panel’s creation an opportunity to address the sheriff’s department’s “excessive force, lethal force and abuse of civil and human rights.”

“Today we move forward in an unprecedented moment,” he said.

The commission is diverse, and includes a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, a former local prosecutor, a former public defender, a civil rights lawyer and members of the clergy (see list below).

“These are people who are experts in their filed,” said Inspector General Max Huntsman, “and more importantly they’re experts at not being ignored.”

Because the group has no legal authority over the sheriff’s department, its success in part will depend on its ability to lobby for change with McDonnell, the Board of Supervisors and the public.

"The make-up of the commission is pretty excellent,” said Patrisse Cullors, a founder of Black Lives Matter and Dignity and Power Now. “I think we are in good shape to really produce real reform at the sheriff’s department.”

The new commission comes amid a national debate about policing, and there are hopes it could be a model for other cities and counties, said commissioner Hernan Vera.

“We think this commission has the potential, really, to set precedent and really be really influential, in terms of how other police and sheriff’s departments improve, change and react to the concerns of the public.”

McDonnell expressed a similar sentiment.

The goal is for Los Angeles County “to become the national model for the highest standards of constitutional policing,” he said.

He also sees the panel as doing more than just watchdogging his agency. The sheriff wants it to be “a valuable conduit to the community” that could help people “understand our challenges, our capabilities and our needs as well.”