The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has gone through a lot of turmoil lately: findings by a civilian commission that the county's jails have a culture of violence; the early retirement of longtime leader Sheriff Lee Baca; and federal indictments against deputies accusing them of on-the-job misconduct.
Through all of that, there's been a question of what sort of oversight the department should have. An elected official, the sheriff is an atypical law enforcement leader in that he or she is accountable only to the voters – not a civilian oversight board, or elected officials, or an institutional watchdog.
Nevertheless, creating a way to monitor the department has been the goal of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for several years. Supervisors have power over the law enforcement agency's budget, but not much else. The answer was to create the office of the Inspector General and hire former public corruption prosecutor, Max Huntsman, to the post.
At a town hall organized by the office of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the Empowerment Congress, Huntsman acknowledged that while he lacks formal power, he's hopeful that he'll have the necessary tools to inspire change at the sheriff's department.
"I can't force change. I can't order the sheriff's department to do anything," Huntsman said, noting to the audience that local and state law gives the sheriff sole authority over his or her department. "The power that I have comes from you."
Huntsman noted that the vast majority of sheriff's deputies are "heroes," and that his job is to bring attention to those who fall short. He outlined his vision for the new office as a bridge between the community and the sheriff's department.
"I'm not really a cop, but I'm not exactly not a cop either," said Huntsman, a prosecutor for 22-years. By hiring attorneys, retired police officers, and investigators to staff the inspector general office, he said he hopes to gain credibility with both the public and the department. The primary role will be to monitor department's activities, audit expenditures, select which investigations to pursue, and lobby for changes, he said.
Huntsman also commented on recent controversies, including Baca's retirement.
"I think he would have won," had he stayed in the race, Huntsman said.
He also addressed Friday's indictment of two L.A. County sheriff's deputies on charges they beat a jail inmate, Brett Phillips, in 2009.
He said the sheriff's department ignored those sorts of complaints for too long, to the point that when the case was presented to the L.A. County District Attorney's Office for prosecution, the three-year statute of limitations had already expired. (The federal statute of limitations had not, and the FBI and local U.S. Attorney's Office picked up the case.)
"I don't know if those deputies are innocent or guilty," he said. "But I know for sure the case should have gone up the chain of command and been submitted to the D.A. in a timely manner."
Huntsman also described the sheriff's department as a bit more "cowboy" than the relatively militaristic Los Angeles Police Department, where: "if you give a command, it gets followed all the way down the ranks." The sheriff's department, he said, is spread out, with a lot of different functions and a decentralized command structure. That, he said, means he'll have to be engaged on all levels of the organization.
Members of the audience mostly questioned Huntsman on his plans for the office and ability to help the sheriff's department cultivate a positive relationship with the community. Particularly, several audience members asked about what they see as a high number of deputy-involved shootings over the past few years. A woman who said she'd lost a family member in a deputy-involved shooting eight months ago, asked why more officers aren't prosecuted.
"One reason is Kelly Thomas," Huntsman said, referring to a recent not-guilty verdict for the Fullerton police officers accused of fatally beating the mentally ill homeless man. "Many prosecutors believe they don't have a realistic chance of winning. It's very hard."
Huntsman said regardless, he thinks discipline and prosecutions can only go so far towards reform.
"It's changing attitude and approach," he said. A mantra he's embracing as he takes on monitoring the largest jail system in the nation and one of the largest patrol forces.