Updated Tuesday, Dec. 9 – 2:15 pm
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors today approved the creation of a civilian commission to oversee the Sheriff’s Department.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis joined forces to propose the independent commission, the structure of which has yet to be determined. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl backed the plan, while Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe voted no in a 3-2 vote.
“It is all about accountability … and constitutional policing,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Ridley-Thomas and ex-Supervisor Gloria Molina pushed for a civilian review board for more than a year but were unable to garner a third vote on the five-member board. The idea was last rejected in August, before Solis and Kuehl were elected.
“The public trust … has fallen to a new low” across the country,” Solis said. “We can’t afford to delay any longer.”
Advocates said a citizens’ commission was critical, given violence against jail inmates and corruption within the Sheriff’s Department.
The department has “a long history of corruption, evading accountability, violence and (runs) the largest jail system in the world,” said Jas Wade of Dignity & Power Now.
A temporary Citizens’ Commission for Jails Violence was established in2011 and recommended dozens of reforms the following year. However, implementation of several of those changes is still underway and the county is facing a pending federal consent decree stemming from its maltreatment of mentally ill inmates.
“Circumstances have not gotten substantially better,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Supervisor Michael Antonovich argued that the review board would be “a step backwards,” saying that some of the Sheriff’s Department’s “darkest days” took place under multiple layers of oversight.
Antonovich urged his colleagues to rely on the Office of Inspector General to monitor jail conditions and conduct investigations.
Other opponents of a civilian board, including a representative from the Citizens’ Commission for Jail Violence, said such a commission would have no authority over the elected sheriff without changes to state law. Other critics said a civilian panel could dilute the efforts of Inspector General Max Huntsman.
Without subpoena power, a civilian board would be ineffective and “create expectations among the people that cannot be met,” said attorney Richard Drooyan, responsible for monitoring the implementation of reforms suggested by the CCJV.
Drooyan is a former assistant U.S. Attorney who has served on numerous local commissions, most significantly the Los Angeles Police Commission under former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Backers of the idea said that even an advisory-only board would offer community members a critical voice and a forum for grievances, but today many demanded that the civilian commission be given subpoena power.
Dozens of advocates said the review board should not include any current or retired members of law enforcement.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell has expressed his support for a commission to oversee the department, but has questioned whether such a board should have subpoena power.
Interim Undersheriff Neal Tyler, speaking on behalf of McDonnell, who was attending a meeting of sheriffs from across the state, reiterated that support today, saying the new sheriff wants to “maximize access.”
Huntsman said he was willing to work under a civilian review board with the authority to fire him and said the commission’s effectiveness would turn on access rather than legal standing.
“The issue of access … is absolutely critical,” Huntsman said.
Success would depend, he said, on “whether or not what they have to say is welcomed by the department.”
Huntsman said he has not been given the access he needs to do his job.
McDonnell, in the sheriff’s post for just a week, is reviewing a 31-page legal opinion from county attorneys on sharing information with the Office of Inspector General, according to Tyler.
That opinion, drafted in August, includes “both reassurances about access and also cautionary statements” about divulging information, Tyler said.
A working group to include McDonnell and Huntsman, or their representatives, and one representative appointed by each supervisor will be assembled and directed to report back in 90 days with recommendations as to the commission’s mission, authority, size and structure. The vote in support of the working group was unanimous.