Crime & Justice

Report: Subpoena power necessary for commission overseeing Sheriff's Department

Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell
Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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If it's going to have “teeth,” Los Angeles County’s new Civilian Oversight Commission should have the power to force the Sheriff to turn over personnel and other records, according to a new report.

The recommendation comes from a working group assigned by the Board of Supervisors to examine how best to set up the new commission, which was created in the wake of a series of scandals at the Sheriff’s Department. The seven-member working group included a former president of the L.A. Police Commission and representatives from the Sheriff's Department.

The board considers the report Tuesday, August 4.

Key Recommendations:

Subpoena power has emerged as a critical issue for activists, who claim it's necessary to have access to internal department documents.  During 13 public meetings and nine town halls conducted by the working group, activists lobbied hard for subpoena power.  Patrice Cullors of Dignity and Power Now called it “make or break” for successful oversight.

Sheriff’s representatives who sat on the group strongly opposed the idea.

They felt it was important the new commission begin its work in a “cordial and cooperative relationship,” and that Sheriff Jim McDonnell – elected last year – be given time to “effectuate reforms,” according to the report. None was immediately available for comment.

“Subpoena power would be available as a last resort,” said attorney Dean Hansell, who chaired the group. “It provides a club.” Hansell once served on the Los Angeles Police Commission.

Hansell acknowledged subpoena power would require voters to approve a change in the County Charter. The working group voted four to three to recommend supervisors place the question on the next ballot.

Inspector General Max Huntsman, who sat on the working group, supported giving the new oversight panel subpoena power, but said it may be overrated.

“A subpoena just gets you the right to get somebody to court to say ‘hey give me stuff',” he said. The department – and the powerful labor union that represents deputies – can always argue that personnel and investigation records are not public.

Huntsman knows this challenge firsthand.  The sheriff has denied Huntsman access to personnel records, which include a wide range of information about internal investigations. McDonnell has cited conflicting California laws and court rulings on access.

Huntsman and other county officials are working to obtain a written agreement with the sheriff that allows more access to the internal workings of the agency.

“I am hopeful we will get something that is powerful,” said Huntsman. Members of the Civilian Oversight Commission would likely end up with information in redacted form, he said.

Its a difficult issue because unlike the LAPD chief, who is hired and fired by a mayor-appointed civilian panel, the sheriff is independently elected by voters.

The majority of the working group said that while McDonnell has “demonstrated a strong commitment" to opening the department up, the "lack of transparency" is what they are pushing for.

When it comes to membership, the working group unanimously recommended nine people serve on the commission. Each of the five members of the Board of Supervisors would appoint one, and the full board would vote on the other four.

“I am disappointed in that recommendation,” said Cullors. She and other activists lobbied to have a committee comprised of representatives of community organizations select four members.

“We are the public so we should have a say,” she said. “It should not only be up to five elected officials.”

Hansell countered the selection process should be “objective,” and wondered what groups in the community would be allowed to choose members.

Another point of contention was whether former sheriff’s officials or other retired law enforcement officers should sit on the oversight panel. The working group voted four to three to prohibit former cops from the commission. Sheriff’s officials said it was unfair to discriminate like that.

In the end, the power of a civilian oversight panel will come from its ability to draw public attention to issues, said Hansell.

“Remember, the sheriff is independently elected,” he said. “The Board of Supervisors has very limited authority.”